“Inclusivity is not a ‘nice to have’, it's a ‘must have’”: Insights from Jake Zukowski, VP of Global Research and Design

In conversation with Jake Zukowski, Vice President of Global Research and Design at HelloFresh SE

As an expert in UX design with extensive design experience, Jake Zukowski gives us his perspective on the wide-ranging importance of inclusivity at HelloFresh. He shares how his personal experiences have shaped his approach to leadership, and discusses the different ways in which promoting inclusive practices brings value across the board: from company culture to best practices in product design, employee satisfaction, and user experiences.

Jake, can you tell us a bit about how you got to your current position at HelloFresh?

Sure. I’ve been a designer for 20 years now and have worked in agencies, on the client side, in innovation consulting, and management consulting. So I have a wide breadth of experiences that I pull from so that we can learn and take the best of what works in other industries to apply it here at HelloFresh.

How I got to Vice President of Design specifically was by fortunate accident. HelloFresh was pursuing me for a while but I was doubtful about the company’s mission, vision and what it stood for. But once I started interviewing, I realized that everyone here is very passionate and convicted in their beliefs. Although not to the extent of being so egotistical as to hold on to those beliefs too strongly. I realized that the people here at HelloFresh were just looking for other passionate, smart people to have a discussion with, and that was really attractive to me.

And I think it's going well! You can ask my boss [jokingly], but over the last four years I've grown into a worldwide, global design leader that I didn't think was possible.

I assume you’re responsible for many geographies and customer profiles. How does inclusivity play a role in your work and what are the key challenges that UX designers and researchers need to address to increase inclusivity in UX design?

The key challenges are what we don’t keep in mind. It's not a process problem and it's not a tool problem. We just need to make sure there's a process, tool or check in place to foster inclusivity. What designers and researchers should focus on is creating empathy and sympathy for a lot of diverse perspectives and diverse people. When this happens – either in the context of their work or outside of it – their worldview and perspective on inclusivity will change forever.

When I was working for a large engine manufacturer that produces engines for these huge machines such as trucks, I used to wear steel toe boots to work every single day as a designer. Some colleagues would ask me about it and I would tell them it’s because I needed to literally walk a mile in people's shoes in order to design the right things for them. While this isn’t how we think about inclusivity holistically, these small ways to get empathy are reminders of the importance of inclusivity in everything we do and they add up.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Instead of a top-down approach to leadership, I embrace the HelloFresh DNA as much as possible. Especially ‘Egoless Environment’, one of our core values which reflects the principle that good ideas can come from anywhere. So I try to apply this principle in my leadership style and keep myself open to create an environment in which everyone feels comfortable to share their opinions.

On that note, have you always aspired to be a leader?

Actually, I'm skeptical of people who aspire to be in leadership. I've always aspired to do something great and to do it with great people, and I found a pretty wonderful opportunity to build that here at HelloFresh so I was excited to take it.

Before being in a leadership position, you usually sling arrows and doubt upon your leaders and say, ‘well I can do it better, I can do it better’. But then there's this moment of opportunity of, ‘okay, now you're the leader’. Now you get to be the one that everyone learns from and everyone can later say, ‘I'll never do it like x, y, and z or like Jake does’ and it's great because you can apply all of that stuff that you learned. So I would say that leadership to me is all about being around people that are really passionate and care about doing cool stuff.

Have you faced any unique opportunities or challenges related to being an openly LGBTQIA+ leader at HelloFresh? And how has that shaped your perspective on diversity in the workplace?

I'd say that HelloFresh is the first place where I felt like I could be my authentic self … where I am appreciated and not just tolerated. I don't know whether or not that is due to the company, or my position, or a little bit of both. Before joining HelloFresh – when I would work with clients or with people outside my close-knit team – I would never have shown up with painted nails. I certainly would go to a Pride event but I wouldn't be dancing in the parade on camera. 

But it is also a result of HelloFresh encouraging people to bring their true authentic selves to work. It doesn’t matter what your title, identity, or nationality is as long as you’re doing amazing stuff and taking chances. What comes out on top is your intelligence, grit and hard work always.

And when it comes to workplace diversity – let’s cut to the chase: It’s no fun working with a bunch of people that look just like you, that talk just like you, and therefore think just like you. Our job isn't to figure out what is in my boss's head or the CEO’s head. It is to bring forth experience to add to the pool of information so we make sure that we're keeping all perspectives in mind. Our product development process needs as many diverse voices to serve the wide diversity of customers we have worldwide.

Therefore, my identity as an openly gay leader helps foster a more heterogeneous environment so that we can accomplish that goal. If we were all the same, all we would be trying to do is play the game of guessing what’s in our bosses’ heads. I would rather work at some place where we only cared about what really matters: our customers. They come from all walks of life, they are all shapes and sizes, and they have all types of identities. If we are homogenous and interchangeable in our company, we will make poor choices for them.

What piece of advice would you give queer professionals who are aspiring to become leaders in the tech industry?

If you can't be yourself at the company, you should ask yourself, why? I spent way too long trying to be a model of a design leader or a certain archetype of design professional and, for a long time, I was hiding my then boyfriend (now husband) and that we lived together and were building a life together. There was so much I was hiding because I was afraid of the repercussions. Companies would tolerate me, but I was afraid they wouldn’t embrace me fully. 

It takes small steps and sometimes you have to find a new venue in order to do this, but you should absolutely find a place where you feel comfortable and loved and supported. For you being you. Because you're important and special. Why do you have to wait? You don’t have to mold yourself entirely to someone else's worldview because they're uncomfortable that you've got a husband or that you're a queer person. You don't have to do that anymore.

As part of HelloFresh’s ongoing commitment to promote inclusivity, there are many initiatives that support our LGBTQAI+ employees and overall community during and beyond Pride Month. Our FreshPride ERG, for instance, organizes events and initiatives to promote the recruitment, retention, and professional development of queer HelloFresh employees across the company. Read more about FreshPride Berlin here.

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