When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I always knew I wanted to do social impact work, I’ve felt that as a driving purpose since I was very young. At 17 I was organizing on civil and human rights, including death penalty abolition and an end to the war on drugs. I was leading my high school’s Amnesty International club and working for a non-profit organization that connected young people in the US to grassroots social change projects happening all over the world at a really local level. My role was teaching young people how to be organizers and leverage their financial resources, educate their peers, and advocate on international human rights issues. I was active with many different mission-driven political organizations at the time and each resonated with me deeply.
But I didn't know how my social impact work was going to manifest into a career. I had a lot of different ideas - maybe a lawyer, an executive director at a nonprofit, a movement organizer, a writer, or a teacher. I was very fortunate because I had models all around me. My parents were long-time activists, my mom was a teacher, my older sister to this day works at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California where I was a youth organizer as a teenager. And I had the almost unheard of opportunity to be a paid intern at a nonprofit when I was in high school, which is how I connected with my mentor Nicole Sanchez, someone who is still my close friend and collaborator to this day. So I had a lot of people in my community who had built their lives around social change, but I didn't have a concrete idea of what my career would look like.
How did you decide to attend Stanford University?
I never thought I could get into Stanford. It really wasn't even in the realm of possibility for me. I had decided I was going to a college nearby which has this really unique program on performance and social justice, two critically important disciplines to me.
I remember I received my acceptance letter to Stanford on April Fool's Day. My mom called me when the envelope arrived, and I didn't think she would prank me, but I thought, “There's no way this is real.” I decided to go to Stanford because frankly I thought it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. I just thought the people I would meet and the caliber of education I would receive would be extraordinarily, and it was. But I know it also would have been great at many other institutions - I think there are a lot of different paths I could have taken and each would have been transformational in different ways.
While I was at Stanford, I delved deeper into a wide range of political organizing. One key issue that I worked on was Palestinian rights. This is an interesting issue for me because like many Jewish people in the US, I was raised with a unwavering commitment to Israel. I never questioned what I was taught about Israel until a Jewish classmate in college who I was doing labor rights organizing with sat me down and basically said, "You're wrong on this issue." At first I was defensive but as I looked more into what she said, I came to understand that the Palestinian struggle for freedom is a human rights struggle, period. I’m regretful that it took me so long to come around but I'm really grateful that she had that conversation with me. We ended up organizing fellow Jews around Palestinian human rights, working with a phenomenal coalition of student organizations pushing for Stanford to divest from companies profiting from human rights abuses in Israel and Palestine.
I also co-founded a social change theatre organization at Stanford, and I got to work on so many different political issues with that company. We partnered with dozens of activist organizations and engaged in everything from street social protest theater in the vein of Augusto Boal to full-stage productions on everything from queer rights to racial justice to environmentalism. I got to dip into all these different incredible coalitions doing such interesting work, some of which I ended up joining as an organizer, like the No on Prop 8 campaign. It was pretty wide-ranging, invigorating work.
How did you choose your major?
I knew from the get-go that I wanted to double-major in Political Science and Drama. I was an actress and activist and I just didn't know how to live without one or the other, I didn't want to. I think performance and social change are always in conversation with each other, and in this political moment that conversation is more relevant than ever. If you look at films being created now like Sorry to Bother You and Get Out, these incredible pieces made by Black creators, you're seeing the way in which performing arts moves and shapes culture in a profound way. I think that more and more artists are looking for how to best leverage their creative urges to craft a more just world.
With the way that many of us instantly access media and culture in 2018, other creative mediums can move and adapt more quickly than theater, but theater definitely still holds a very important space in the culture conversation. Creators like Lin-Manuel Miranda are breathing life into theater and making it relevant for younger generations by creating brilliant pieces like In the Heights and Hamilton that center Black and Brown people.
With regards to my majors, something that did change is that I started out studying political science with a concentration in US national politics, and I ended up switching to political philosophy. I connected with a mentor and advisor in that field, Rob Reich, and I became enraptured with the theoretical underpinnings of political systems and our role within them as individuals.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
My last couple years in college were really, really challenging. I had a psychiatric hospitalization, and in the psych ward doctors gave me a bipolar disorder diagnosis. They put me on a very strong cocktail of medications, I was on antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, sleep drugs...and the meds and doses were constantly changing, wreaking havoc on my body.
I started to not be able to recognize myself. I was so dazed and lethargic I needed help getting out of bed and going to class every morning. I had severe physical side effects from the meds including vomiting, hives, and migraines that would leave me incapacitated for days. Before the meds, my brain was a sponge. I could easily pick up a whole script, perform in multiple shows at once, it felt so easy. On medications my brain slowed down to a halt. I stopped being able to memorize lines, which is why I stopped performing. I feel like medications ripped theater out of my hands. I did a fifth year at Stanford to finish my degrees.
Somehow I managed to graduate and receive a Fulbright scholarship to research social protest theatre in Bangladesh. But I didn’t end up going. I don't even know how to describe my last year at Stanford; it’s such a blur. It was like a long race was finishing, and somehow I had to drag this body across the finish line. I was a hollow shell by the time I graduated, which was so scary for me because my brain and passion were everything. Being engaged, driven, taking a full course load, having three jobs, running clubs, doing theater…that’s what I knew, and suddenly it was gone. I graduated with a pile of awards and honors, and then I really fell apart.
For three and half years, I was basically down for the count. I was surviving. I rarely left the house, I stopped driving, I stopped connecting with friends, I was just managing symptoms. During that time I went through the grueling process of coming off of all my psychiatric meds. As I shed each medication I started to feel a bit more like myself. Coming off of meds is not right for everyone, but it was right for me. I started replacing them with other tools like peer-support group therapy, acupuncture, and cannabis, which was perhaps the biggest game changer for me. I can say in no uncertain terms that cannabis helped save my life.
By the time I started to emerge from this murky haze of meds and symptoms, I thought all my peers had passed me by, that there was no chance I could access the passion and drive that I used to have, let alone have a successful career. That was hard - coming to terms with this new self. But I was very lucky that I had supportive people in my life and a safety net. As I started to gain my energy back, my mentor Nicole said "I think you're ready." I built up my stamina, and I took her up on a job offer working on diversity and inclusion in the tech sector. And when she started her own firm, Vaya Consulting, I was her first hire. These positions were my first foray into working on organizational culture and social impact in the tech industry.
A lot of company leaders and HR teams look at their workforce and recognize that they have real people problems, “We're overwhelmingly white and male, we’re bleeding talent from underrepresented backgrounds, we’re getting external backlash for our practices.” And they don't know how to fix it. So companies bring us in to help them with everything from redesigning hiring processes to crisis remediation to training managers and executives on building inclusive teams. One of our first clients was a startup in the Bay Area, and we enjoyed working with them. They kept asking for more and more of our time and ultimately, the CEO asked us to come in-house and run the diversity, inclusion, and social impact work for the company.
I got to do a lot of really interesting and exciting work there. I was tasked with overseeing the company’s commitment to ConnectHome, a President Obama initiative to close the digital divide in public housing. I worked with a dynamic team to provide free and low-cost high-speed broadband wireless Internet connections, devices, and tech training to young people in low-income housing communities across the US. Our goal was to support students in becoming not just consumers of technology but tech creators and innovators. The pilot program impacted 250,000 families in 28 public housing communities.
I also oversaw international flagship social impact programs, working with a broad coalition of partners across the continent of Africa. Part of my role was to identify and support innovators who were building open source technology for social change around the world. I also worked on the internal culture at the company, and started one of tech's first affinity groups for employees with mental health challenges.
When I work with tech companies on culture change through Vaya Consulting, I always remind them that diversity and inclusion are not abstract concepts disconnected from the products they are building. Teams that are not diverse build products and initiatives in a vacuum, and they struggle with problem identification and understanding the ways their work can and will be used by different populations. This inevitably comes back to bite the company. The alternative is building diverse and inclusive teams in which members bring their unique life experiences to the table and build more innovative, accessible, and viable products.
This is a crucial moment for the tech sector. So many people from underrepresented backgrounds in the tech sector are looking at the state of our industry and saying, "Tech leaders, what are you doing?" The same systems of money, power, and exclusion that run our government run the tech sector. The Trump administration has shifted the US into an even deeper state of crisis. Tech has an incredible opportunity in all this - human and civil rights violations need tech products to work. If you're going to have mass deportations, detention camps, police surveillance, tracking dissidents...that runs on technology. We don't have enough workers and leaders in the tech sector saying, “We're not going to be a part of this anymore.”
In 2017 I relocated to Amsterdam, and in 2018 I started my own company Psychedelic Exploration (www.psychedelicexploration.com): legal, guided psychedelic experiences in Amsterdam. Psychedelics have been a vital wellness...". I consult with tech companies on diversity, inclusion, and social change with a specialization in building mental health into team culture. I also work as a strategy consultant for individuals and organizations around the world looking to level up their operations and vision.
I also just launched a new service, Psychedelic Exploration: legal, guided psychedelic experiences in Amsterdam. Psychedelics have been a vital wellness tool for me over the past three years, and I have a unique opportunity to offer this service living in the Netherlands, a country where people can legally purchase psilocybin in the form of mushroom truffles. I work with clients who are brand new to psychedelics as well as experienced psychedelic users to provide the set and setting for transformational experiences.
On an individual level, I’ve seen how psychedelics can help people explore and heal their own psyches, come to peace with their bodies, hone intuition, build mental wellness and fortitude, delve into creativity, and connect with consciousness and spirituality. On a collective level, I'm very interested in supporting social change agents in using psychedelics to level up their work, access untapped power and energy, and identify new creative pathways to implement social change. I've done years of therapy in a single psychedelic session. Psychedelics have also provided me with incredible insight and clarity in enhancing my social impact work at a time when all people of conscience need to dig deeper to maximize our collective impact.
Psychedelics have a long history in indigenous communities throughout the world, dating back thousands of years. Inextricably linked to the current practice of psychedelic use is colonization, the violent economic pillaging of Central and South America, spiritual tourism, the racist war on drugs, and widespread ongoing state violence against indigenous people. I’m particularly excited to collaborate with psychedelic explorers and practitioners of color working at the intersection of decolonization, mental wellness, and social change.
My strength and curse is that I have a million things I'm excited to do at all times. I don't know where my work is going to lead, but I know it's right for right now and that I’m building relationships with brilliant collaborators around the world. That's really enough for me. I want to stay agile, I want to stay responsive to the political moment, and I want to jump on opportunities where I can leverage and expand my impact. That's served me well over the years. I'm excited about the work I do now, and I think it'll only grow.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
A lot of people told me when I was younger, "Slow down. You're going too fast. You're doing too much, and this isn't going to serve you." I think it would have benefited me to hear that, but I didn’t, I was too stubborn. I think the best advice, had I taken it, would really just be to try and stay embodied through the experience.
I think for much of my life I've been disembodied, always churning out ideas and working a mile a minute. I think if I hadn't disconnected from my body that would've served me. Coming back into my body after so many years has been a really painful but important process. I remind myself often to try and relax and stay grounded for the ride, because this is the body I’m going to have for my whole life.
A piece of advice I would give younger people is to identify the things that you could do for hours and hours and be in complete creative flow. Keep those close to you. Whether those practices end up being part of your career or not, that feeling of creative flow is your power tool, so don’t discard it because it seems impractical or a waste of time. What you actually end up doing as a career will probably change many times, and that’s great, that’s part of the journey. But having a creative outlet will serve you for a lifetime.