Editor's note: The following is a transcript of the 11th episode of Therefore, What? — a podcast from Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson. It's been edited for clarity.
Boyd Matheson: Faith continues to be pushed out of the public square, restricted on college campuses and banished from public schools. People of faith and seekers of faith wonder where to turn. This week we follow such a believer on a journey of faith that began in a place not known for its religious strength, California's Silicon Valley. Join us for a discussion of faith as a dimension of diversity on this edition of Therefore, What? Therefore, What? is a weekly podcast that breaks down the news while breaking down barriers, challenges you and the status quo, explores timely topics and timeless principles and leaves you confident to face what's next. I'm Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News, and this is Therefore, What?
We're very pleased today to be joined by Sue Warnke. She is the senior director of technology content at Salesforce, the world leader in customer relationship management software. In her 18 years in the technology industry, Sue's managed over 50 engineers and technical writers. She has a master's in English from Colorado State University. And I loved this — she was profiled in Liz Weissman's best-selling leadership book, "Rookie Smarts." If you haven't read that, that's a great one. But very interesting. And what we're here to talk about today is that after a lifetime as an agnostic, Sue became a Christian about a year and a half ago and has since helped Salesforce launch a brand new diversity group that is sparking conversation in the technology industry on the topic of faith and diversity. So Faithforce, which I just love the sound of that. And Sue lives in Pacifica, California, with her husband and three teenagers. We'll talk about the teenagers in a minute, but Sue, welcome to the program.
Sue Warnke: Great to be here, Boyd. Thank you.
BM: That's great. Well, your story is a fascinating one, particularly that you found your faith in a place that's really not known as a place for seekers and people of faith, in Silicon Valley. So give us a little backstory, Sue.
SW: Yeah, it's an interesting environment out here. So, as some people know, Silicon Valley is, depending on the study, you know, the second- or third-least religious area in the United States of America. I know San Francisco ranks, you know, 19,354 out of 19,356 least-religious. So that's the environment around here, and to come to faith in that environment, and then to be in a situation of figuring out how to incorporate that into this environment was a really interesting challenge the past couple of years here.
BM: So tell us your story. You grew up as an agnostic, and tell us what that change was about. And what did that lead you to?
SW: You know, I have always championed diversity of all kinds — age, ethnicities — except one, and that was religious diversity. I, you know, have quite a wall about me for that. And there's kind of an interesting reason for that. I grew up in Layton, Utah. Some of your viewers may know that area, very heavily LDS (members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and we were not LDS. We were sort of nominally Protestant. So in a given year, I was often the only non-LDS member in my entire class. So I felt like an outsider. And that sort of created this wall about religion for me, that I carried with me my whole life. And of course, we have to pursue something. So I pursued what I would call sort of the God of success. And that went really well throughout life. I achieved a lot in school, and then in my career, and I climbed the ladder. But what I found is, as I got to the top of that ladder, I was missing something deeply. And I went off in all these directions, trying to find that thing. I eventually left my job here at Salesforce in pursuit of something that I was sure would fill that void, and that was a job in leadership development. I was going to transform leadership. And turns out that didn't fill the void. And in fact, I experienced a tremendous failure on the job — part of the job involved sales, and I was terrible at sales, it turns out. So kind of, for one of the first times in my life, I experienced really profound failure. And it was deeply humbling. It was in that humility, that people just one by one started to come into my life and point me in one direction that culminated in a conversion to Christianity. I had a beautiful call with my aunt Jean, who, at the time, didn't know she was a believer, and she pointed me in that direction, and I became a Christian in January of last year.
BM: Wow. That's so many things to unpack there. I want to hit a couple of things — this idea of this profound sense of failure. I think we do see so many who, again, we've pushed faith kind of to the back burner, eliminated it altogether in a lot of public spaces. But often, it's that humility, that sense of failure, that does cause you to step back a little bit, and maybe question, what am I chasing? What am I doing? And really, what matters most in the end?
SW: Yeah, you know, I had to sort of come to the conclusion that it turns out, you know, having exhausted all options that I could possibly think of, it turns out that I was not enough. I could not actually be sort of the lord of my life. And so that was a great, humbling experience for me. I'm so grateful that that happened. But I do think that, you know, especially here in Silicon Valley, probably everywhere, we are always kind of pursuing that god of success. We want the ultimate and we try to fill that void with all sorts of things like our career, or money, or things, or prestige or power. And I was certainly guilty of that. And so having kind of seen the other side of things now, what it feels like, what the experience is like to have that understanding that I'm actually a teeny tiny piece of the picture, and that there is something much, much bigger than me, is just a profound piece that I never had as an agnostic.
So it was so critically important to me. And it was such a huge part of my identity. Now that it was very strange to be at work and, and have to kind of feel like I had to silence that, like, oh, that isn't part of the work environment. So that was a really interesting challenge that I had when I came back.
BM: OK. So let's drill down on that a little bit. So here you found your faith, and I'm sure all of the different emotions that come with that transformation. And then suddenly, to feel like you're not able to bring your authentic self, your whole self to the business place. Describe that for us.
SW: You know, a lot of this was just assumptions that I made. And, you know, having been part of that sort of perception of religious as something you're not allowed to talk about at work, you know, that we were sort of trained all throughout school that religion is inescapably divisive and the only way to handle it is to silence it. You know, I taught English in a university and I remember telling my students you can write about any topic you want, except religion. So that is, as I understood that perspective deeply, because that was me, and then to be on the other side of it was really shocking. And I'll give you an example of what it felt like. I would call it boomerang back to Salesforce, thankfully, and I was about three weeks in and we were having a team-building activity, you know, several people sitting around a room sharing about themselves. And the question was, you know, if you had two extra hours in the day, what would you do with it? And immediately, I thought in my head, I would read the Bible. And that began a tumultuous series of thoughts of, oh, but can I say that? I don't think I can say that. Oh, no, what will I say? And as the conversation got closer and closer to me, I realized, oh, I should just lie. So I did. I said, I would go hiking. And then that sent a whole series of guilt waves. And, oh, I thought about it all week long. You know, why can't I be my authentic self? And I just assumed that I couldn't. But then what I found is, I started to talk about it in little baby steps. I would tell one person and they would be fine about it, to my shock. And then we would tell more. And the more I talked about it, the more I found that many people actually felt like they had to hide, and they were also kind of alone. And so we just kind of got together, all of us, and said, you know, maybe this should be part of the diversity conversation. Because we say, bring your whole authentic self. And this is a huge part of many people's identity.
BM: That's great. And I think — Salesforce is known for its diversity programs and the different components. It's such an impressive organization. I've always admired that. You shared in one leadership setting, kind of that courageous vulnerability moment where you sort of put it out there, asking if anybody would engage. Described that one for us.
SW: Yeah. So, you know, what I desperately wanted to do is connect with at least one person that would understand the weight of this decision. In my case, to follow Christ. I thought, I just need to talk to somebody about it. You know, anybody? Can somebody talk to me? And so what I did is I posted very, very nervously on our social network, we call Chatter, this question, which was, would anybody like to pray with me, and that was very, very scary. I did feel very compelled to do that. I didn't want to, but I thought, I think I'm supposed to do this. And in fact, nobody responded, for three long weeks. And I checked back every day, and I thought, oh, my gosh; well, I certainly can't take it down now, because that would look worse. But I waited patiently. And then one person responded, finally, and she said, you know what, I was looking for this exact same thing. And we ended up meeting for prayer. All we could find was this big, empty conference room with glass walls, so anybody could see in, but we prayed. And it was just that moment of being able to connect my spiritual life with my work life was so empowering. And it was just this rush of joy for both of us. And that quickly grew from two to five people to nine. And now, you know, about 10 months later, we have almost 300 people that meet at different times of the week for prayer and lifting each other up. So that is just obviously a pent-up demand for a lot of people. And it brings a lot of joy.
BM: I think one of the things that's been really impressive, as you've rolled that out to get to 300 people from around Salesforce, from around the world. I know that these are not all just folks who believe in Christ, or who are of the Christian faith of one form or another, but you have real diversity in terms of the religious thought as well.
SW: Yeah, absolutely. That was the prayer groups. So that's just kind of a, we call those affinity groups. They're not official, they're just few, anybody can gather together around any topic, basket weaving, etc. So that was just kind of to solve that gap. And then on the broader scale, we realized we need to bond together all of these different people of faith, or even no faith, or atheists. And you have several people that were feeling alone. And so a vast group got together. And we realized, so Salesforce has these things called ohana groups, they had nine of them, things around, you know, the Women's Network, Latino force, etc. But the missing point was faith. And so a couple people really helped that get off the ground. And we now have actually much more than 300, if you include the full interfaith network, it's well over 1,000. And we have nine groups, nine different regional chapters all across the world. And this is for people of faith, or even no faith who just want to be allies, and help those who do have a faith
BM: Share with us if you can, maybe just some of the perspectives of, again, people realizing, one, that they're not alone in terms of that desire to bring that whole authentic self to work, but maybe just some of the experiences there in terms of people realizing, yes, there are others out there. I'm not alone in the universe, and then what that means to them in terms of their job satisfaction and commitment to company, and so on.
SW: Yeah, you know, I'm convinced that this had a critical business impact, massive business impact, to enable faith at work. And I'm seeing it every day now that I lead, you know, faith for San Francisco, people are coming to me constantly and sharing their stories. And my favorite is a friend of mine said, you know, he noticed an employee of his was looking tired. And so he asked him, you know, what's wrong? And the employee said, well, and he looked down and he kind of whispered, I'm fasting for Ramadan. And the manager said something important in that moment. And he said, oh, tell me more about that. And the employee kind of looked up shocked and said, oh well, I'm fasting for a month, sunup to sundown, the purpose is to increase compassion for those in need. And then the manager said something even more important, which was, how can I support you? And that moment was life-changing for that employee. So they worked out a cadence for the meetings, the manager encouraged him to even share with the team about what Ramadan meant to him. It just increased this education across the team and made this employee feel like a million bucks, right? That he was seen for the first time. And I have all sorts of people tell me their stories like this, that they felt seen. And in terms of business impact it's enormous, you know, not only is this employee so loyal to Salesforce, he gushes about his manager. He gushes externally about Salesforce. So that, you know, increases recruiting, it enables his retention.
I had a gentleman talk to me about three weeks ago. And he said, Sue, I have to tell you that Faithforce is the reason I am here. So he'd been at a thriving Silicon Valley company, but he didn't feel safe or comfortable to express his faith. And he, at the time heard about Faithforce, and he said, I have to work at Salesforce. So he quit his job and ended up here and he's so happy. So I hear these stories of just, this is like, really, truly life-changing for a lot of people.
BM: Wow, that's fantastic. And I want to drill down just a little bit more on this manager taking the time to really find out what was going on with an employee and that opportunity to connect in a very different way. You know, from the time we're in kindergarten, we're taught that in order to understand something, we assess it, we label it, we group it, we interpret it and then that is supposed to lead us to some sort of understanding. And the thing that has really been hitting me lately is that whenever we're going through that assess, label, group and explain, that prevents us from having compassion and then acting in ways that are very charitable, or that allow us to provide, you know, ministry or service or help or anything of that nature. And it seems to me that when we have this opportunity to bring our authentic self, but then we go past all the labels and grouping we have a much better chance to actually get to compassion and the things that will help us as a society.
SW: Absolutely. It's shocking to me how easy that conversation actually is, you know. I mean I avoided it my whole life, I never asked anybody about their faith. And we're trained not to, right, but when you actually do it, when you say, oh, what's your faith perspective or what's your faith background? People do love to share it. I mean across the board, left and right, people want to share it because it's their story and there's a reason why they think that and feel that and you know it comes down to, as you said, empathy. I mean what if your colleague is fasting that day? Maybe that's not the day to have a buffet party, right? Yom Kippur is coming up on Sept. 19 and, you know, it hurts nobody to be aware of that and to ask about it, oh tell me more about that? What is that like for you? That's fascinating. And it's, you know, the core principle is that it's not about pushing or changing somebody's perspective or faith, it's just about learning and bringing visibility to it.
BM: That's so true. And I think one of the things that makes our country extraordinary is that oneness doesn't mean sameness. That the richness and strength of the country, of society, of organizations and businesses is in the diversity and making sure that we have faith as a component of that. I think the time has really come.
SW: Yeah, absolutely. It really has. And it's just so much easier than we think. I think the most delightful part of this whole experience the past year is that, you know, the benefits are enormous. That retention, recruiting, morale, productivity. You know, if I'm not sitting there ruminating on why didn't I say the Bible when they asked me, you know, if I'm actually able to use that energy and that time and pour it back into Salesforce, I can give them my whole passion, my whole self. I had one woman share with me that she was very close to leaving Salesforce and going off to do ministry, because she felt she couldn't unite these two identities that she had, her work life and her faith life. So I just think that the business benefits are enormous, just retaining this enormous talent and this passion. And in fact, the risks are very small. We pump them up to be so enormous that, oh, no, there's going to be disagreement. And there's going to be differences of perspective. But in reality, those things are incredibly easy to mitigate.
BM: Absolutely. And there clearly is a, I think it's easy for some to paint this as a false choice of either it has to be a completely religious organization, or a completely secular and never the twain shall meet. And so I think this bridges that, and I think you've laid out an extraordinary business case for faith not being assigned to, you know, a compartment that we keep at home and don't bring with us into the workforce.
SW: You know, I really think that we have hit a tipping point on this topic. And really, we can't not address it any longer. Employees, especially millennials, expect that they can unite their spiritual self with their work self. We, you know, we had an intern event just a little while ago and the No. 1 question in the room from these millennials was, wow, is there a Faithforce near me? Above all the other topics that could be talking about, there's a hunger and a drive and, most importantly, an expectation that this is allowed.
BM: Oh, that's really interesting. And we've got just a couple of minutes left. And I wanted to bring in your teenagers, because I know you've got three of them. But you teed that up in terms of the young people, that often we discount them. I think millennials get way undersold in terms of their value. And I think they're actually far more communitarian than even their parents. They just do it very different. But what are you seeing in terms of that with your own kids that are teenagers now? And what do they want to bring into the public space?
SW: Yeah, you know, I mean, with them, almost any topic is fair game, there really isn't, I guess, because of the explosion of technology, right? There aren't walls so much around topics like we maybe have grown up with, so they do expect that they can be able to talk about things. And, you know, I went on my, on the side, I'm helping to plant a church called New Song in Los Altos, and kind of set in the South Bay, and when people ask, like, what did you do over the weekend? Or when I asked my kids, what are you going to do over the weekend, people expect to be able to answer that authentically. I shouldn't have to pretend that I'm not doing this massive thing on the side. And people are actually not shocked when you say what you really did over the weekend, or what you're planning to do.
BM: Fantastic. Well Sue, thank you so much for joining us on Therefore, What? today. We appreciate you sharing your journey and this critical component of bringing our whole authentic self and looking at faith as a dimension of diversity — an important dimension of diversity in the workplace and the public space. Thanks, Sue.
SW: My pleasure. Thank you.
BM: Therefore, What? So as we reflect on the insight that Sue Warnke has shared with us today, Sue is just such a great believer and a great seeker of truth that I always learn so many things from her. And I find myself just going back over and over and over again. I want to start with just going back to her describing the interaction between the employee and the manager. The employee is clearly a little fatigued, maybe a little short, maybe a little grumpy, and it would have been very easy as a manager to just say, well, you know, what's your problem today? Or to turn it into an argument or into ill feelings or hostile feelings based on production, and so on. But the brilliance of the manager to stop and say, hey, are you OK, what's going on? And then not to be content just with the answer of, oh, hey, I'm fasting for Ramadan. Again, it would have been very easy for that manager to just say, oh, well, that's too bad, get your work done. But instead, that manager paused and took it to a different level by asking, tell me more about that. What is that? What does that mean? That completely changed the dynamics of the interaction and allowed that employee to share a critical, important part of who they are as a person, let alone who they are as an employee. And so creating space for that, I think is such an extraordinary thing, that when we have those kinds of conversations, even conversations that may be uncomfortable for us at first, or maybe we've just convinced ourselves that they're going to be uncomfortable, as Sue pointed out, we often find out that they're actually pretty easy conversations to have.
And so you can imagine that employee who was able to share, hey, I'm fasting sunup to sundown, for the next 30 days as part of Ramadan, that the validation, they must have felt that this manager cares about me, not just as a cog in a wheel, not just as a producer in the company. But as a person, as an individual. Those are extraordinary moments. And we need more of those, not less of those. As we were going back and forth with Sue, this has been so on my mind of late, this whole concept that we get from the time we started in school of assess, label, group, define. All of those things which prevent us from having compassion and acting with charity. And so we really have to stop. It's not that we don't discern, it's not that we don't make judgment calls in terms of our safety. But think about it this way, you know, if I'm walking along the street, and I see that homeless person who's not just a homeless person, they're a person first, they happen to be a person who doesn't have a home at the moment. But if I immediately start assessing them — and saying, oh, I wonder what kind of drug addict that is, or I wonder how many parties they went to, or, where's their family — if I start assessing and grouping and labeling, my ability to act in any way that's going to be meaningful for that individual, or any opportunity for help or direction or anything else is out the window. And so we have to learn to suspend that kind of judgment. You can see it over and over in all kinds of different settings, where we just assess, we label, we group, we define, and we move on. And learning to suspend that judgment is what will allow us to be at our best and do the most good in terms of making a difference for those around us.
I love the fact that Sue makes a real solid business case for faith in the workforce. And if you're not familiar with salesforce.com, they're an extraordinary company. They do some amazing things around diversity, and all kinds of diversity. And the fact that they've added faith as a dimension of diversity speaks volumes, especially in Silicon Valley. And to hear Sue describe that now, they have people of all different faiths and no faith at all who are comfortable coming in and having a conversation and getting to understand people just a little bit better. I also love that Sue really figured it all out. I think it's so interesting that she was pursuing an opportunity in leadership, and it was in failure that she really found herself and that takes some courageous vulnerability as well to be able to share, hey, I really learned a lot about myself in failure. And I think that's true for all of us. Some of the greatest lessons of life come not through the great victories, but through the great failures, or as she described it, a profound failure from a career standpoint, that led her to great leadership in her career, but also more importantly, led her to her faith, and to her better self. And then that desire to make sure she could bring that authentic self to the workplace and to every place. And I think that's really where we have to get to as a society, that we need to get away from the scare tactics and the fearmongering of we can't have discussions of faith in the public square, that faith needs to be left at home, or within the walls of the synagogue, or the chapel, or the mosque.10 comments on this story
We are our best when we are diverse, and we value the diversity. As I said before, oneness is not sameness. It's the diversity that gives us strength. When we value the diversity, not when we classify the diversity or use the diversity as a way to divide, to gain power, to gain position, we have to really learn to step back and just value that for what it is and the strength that it gives to us in our communities and in our country. So remember, as we think about faith, we all need to bring it authentically into every space and make sure that we are bringing our authentic self everywhere we go. Remember after the story is told, after the principle is presented, after the discussion and debate have been had, the question for all of us is Therefore, What? Don't miss an episode — subscribe to this podcast on Apple podcast or wherever you're listening today and be sure to rate this episode and leave us a review. Follow us on desertnews.com/podcast and subscribe to our newsletter This is Boyd Matheson, opinion editor for the Deseret News. Thanks for engaging with us on this week's edition of Therefore, What?