Allied’s LaRissa O’Neal talks to myGwork’s Pepi Sappal about how her multi-faceted identity has fuelled her passion for diversity and inclusion
BY MYGWORK, IMAGES BY LARISSA O’NEAL
When LaRissa O’Neal took on the role of Director of Learning and Development at Allied Electronics & Automation (part of Electrocomponents Plc, which RS Components also belongs to) for the Americas region a year and a half ago, she was also keen to drive diversity and inclusion and create more inclusive learning opportunities at the company.
As a multi-racial, multi-ethnic female who openly identifies as bisexual and is passionate about LGBTQI inclusion matters, she joined several of the company’s employee resource groups (ERGs), including Spectrum (for LGBTQI), Embrace (for race) and Elevate (for gender equality). LaRissa describes herself as a pot of melting cultures thanks to her Irish, German and Pennsylvania Dutch ethnicities, and American Indian and African American blood running through her veins. Given her passion and commitment to diversity issues over the last eighteen months, she was asked by leadership to become co-chair of Spectrum just last year.
As a diverse Midwestern, queer, Black professional from Springfield, Ohio, LaRissa has often been the “only” one in the room representing other marginalised communities at senior levels, which can be very challenging. She likens the situation to being the only alto in a choir: “The choir loves having me there and I love being a part of it. So it’s not about whether or not I feel accepted, or whether I’m in a space where I want to be, because I am. The choir needs me there, but as the only alto, I have to sing louder, clearer and more confidently to be heard and balance out the other voices. It’s a feeling of honour and pride to be that representative and lone voice. But it’s also so challenging and scary at times in case I hit the wrong note and mess up”.
LaRissa still finds herself taking a pause before raising certain issues, particularly around LGBTQI matters because it’s still a fringe diversity conversation in the workplace. “It’s still so in the shadows of the diversity conversation and it’s something that people are still really hesitant to talk about in the US”, she pointed out. “So I often have to question are my suggestions too controversial? Am I going to unnecessarily upset people? Is this going to have a negative repercussion?”
Going back to her analogy, LaRissa says she wants to do the right thing “not only in representing all of the altos but also to continue to support the choir that I’ve been asked to be a part of”. Although she feels she can be open about her LGBTQI identity at Allied, it wasn’t always the case during the earlier part of her career. In fact, LaRissa never officially came out to her first employer, Radio Shack, where she was employed for almost fourteen years. “Back then, it just wasn’t really part of the conversation and the company was quite conservative. I did, however, have a photo of myself and my female partner and our son on my desk. And I would use the ‘she/her’ pronouns when I referred to her, so people could have figured it out, if they were paying attention”.
It was also at Radio Shack where LaRissa discovered her passion for learning and development. “I would not be where I am today in my career, had it not been for the path that I took through Radio Shack”, she recalled. She joined as an assistant manager within weeks of graduating, and just six months later she was promoted to store manager. Then, over the next seven years, she took on larger roles on the sales side of the business until she became district manager. But the role she loved the most was helping to train and develop new managers. And she “unintentionally” became the training store manager for her district (Chicago, Illinois) and a mentor to store managers who wanted to take the next step in their career.
“That work got me recognised by our corporate training team. They eventually asked me if I would like to be a field trainer. So, for the next two years, my job was travelling all over the country, dropping into different districts and spending time with district and store managers on training initiatives”, explained LaRissa. “I was helping them to work on their soft skills, such as how to connect with their team, how to invest in them and how to leverage their strengths to develop them. I built and led that programme. It was just fantastic to see the next generation of company leaders being developed and know that I was influencing that. I absolutely loved and adored that job. After a couple of years of doing that, I was offered the chance to move to Texas, to take on a store operations role”.
However, the role was short-lived as she returned to training and went on to become the director of training for all of Radio Shack stores until the company went bankrupt in 2017. Interestingly, in those fourteen years, LaRissa tried to quit her job at Radio Shack twice, before being offered the opportunity to switch to training: “I was getting burnt out in the district manager role, managing over twenty stores which was highly stressful and draining for me. But every time I tried to resign, I kept being offered another opportunity. I’m eternally grateful to Radio Shack because I finally discovered what it was that I was passionate about. Those opportunities also really helped to develop my philosophies on investing in people and development and learning”.
In fact, LaRissa attributes her success in training and development to her theatre and psychology studies. “Most people are surprised to learn that I graduated in psychology and theatre given that I work in retail management. But I truly believe that every salesperson can benefit from the teachings of psychology and theatre. Because what is sales other than trying to understand (psychology) and influence (theatre) people?”
LaRissa has actually used many elements of psychology and theatre in the training that she has developed for training store and sales managers. “I used a lot of improvisation games to help them think on their feet to keep the conversation going when they were dealing with customers. And, let’s be honest, not every customer is pleasant, but you’ve still got to bring on your A-game. I’ve also used the theatre training aspects to help managers better present themselves and get attention, etc”.
After Radio Shack, she spent three years at a more modern, progressive and innovative sports start-up, which, culturally, was the total opposite of Radio Shack. She was encouraged to be out and open. When she was offered the senior training and development role job at Allied in 2021, she was initially apprehensive about taking the job. “I didn’t want to go back to what I perceived as a really structured traditional conservative set-up like Radio Shack,” she explained. “I was enjoying the progressive and innovative aspects of a start-up at Blue Star Sports, which later became Stack Sports”.
As one of just three people heading the people department at Stack Sports, she was responsible for learning and development department strategy, as well as DE&I, for around four hundred staff dispersed around the world. “The role exposed me to so many other pieces of the people function, with a big focus on how to stay connected, particularly with the move to homeworking amid the pandemic”, she said.
After about three years with the start-up, she passively started job hunting and ended up in an interview for a role at Allied. So what convinced her to make the move? “I was being interviewed around June or July 2020, which was during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement here in the US and during Pride month. Not only did my interviewers speak passionately about their desire to continue influencing the DE&I agenda within the business, but on researching the company I saw post after post of diversity campaigns with messages of support and inclusion on their social media channels”, highlighted LaRissa. “Despite being in a historically more traditional industry, I felt that it had a progressive culture that I had come to really appreciate and it provided me with the career opportunities I was looking for”.
Allied did not shy away from difficult social conversations around diversity, especially around race and LGBTQI matters, which is important for LaRissa. “During the interview process and conversations with Allied leadership, I saw they were also passionate about social justice matters and acknowledged that the business was going through much-needed change. That really resonated with me, so I accepted the job offer”, she confirmed.
Having the choice to be open and out at Allied is important for LaRissa too: “It has been made abundantly clear by leadership – internally and externally – that it is okay to acknowledge all parts of myself and be open about my LGBTQ+ identity at work. This is extremely important as we know how draining and horrible it can be for our mental and psychological wellbeing to constantly worry about how to talk about plans for the weekend or holidays and whether or to reveal your same-sex partners to colleagues”.
She admits that not everybody will want to be open and out, “but at least they should have the option to do so if they choose”, she pointed out. “Surprisingly, some people are still struggling with whether the topic actually belongs in the workspace. So the first piece is normalising the conversation at work. That starts with somebody in the organisation being willing to ask the question, do we know how represented the LGBTQ+ community is in the business? And if not, what are we doing to address that? The LGBTQ+ is still a silent underrepresented group in many workplaces. The fact that it’s a hidden aspect of diversity doesn’t help”.
As co-chair of Spectrum, she’s raising those difficult questions. “We’re also encouraging them to take a more active role, to start building a contingency here in the Americas and have some more of a visible presence. Once more people become advocates or allies and more people are willing to bring their whole selves to work because it’s okay and no longer controversial, we will start a snowball of seeing even more people getting comfortable with being out or becoming allies”, she explained.
Through Spectrum, LaRissa is working on normalising those conversations and creating the space and opportunities for employees to share their stories and experiences. She’s also organising collaborative discussions with other ERGs to bring in the intersectionality aspect and have more diverse conversations to improve tolerance and acceptance all around.
Her personal struggle of dealing with her own multi-faceted identity and being accepted has certainly fuelled a fire and desire in her to ensure that others don’t have to face the challenges that she did. “As a mum to two teenagers and one preteen, I’m working hard to make certain that they and future generations don’t have to struggle or fight as hard to be accepted, however they identify”, she concluded.
Allied Electronics & Automation, part of Electrocomponents Plc (of which RS Components also belongs to), is a proud partner of myGwork, the LGBTQ+ business community.
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