We had the good fortune of connecting with Carissa Begonia and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Carissa, is your business focused on helping the community? If so, how?
We are collectively being called to co-create a society that empowers all of us, not just some of us. My work through CONSCIOUSXCHANGE helps answer the questions: What would happen if we interacted with one another and the world with more purpose and intention? What are you going to (e)XCHANGE to make a positive change in your life and the lives of others?
When I started CONSCIOUSXCHANGE, I was at a point in my career when I was really looking for meaning and purpose. Like a lot of young professionals, I was starting to question the point of my time here on this planet, and how I could contribute my talents in meaningful ways. But I was also fighting this toxic capitalistic idea of success looking a certain way – the rat race, Fortune 500s, the executive board room. I once held that version of success with such importance and aspired to have the titles, the salary, and prominent companies listed on my resume, but once I finally got my seat at the table, that sense of pride was fleeting.
CONSCIOUSXCHANGE was born out of the idea that it’s possible to design a life that replaces limitation with liberation, and I help coach leaders, organizations, and entrepreneurs to define success on their own terms, pursue meaningful work, and design their lives on purpose.
My work centers around racial equity. I like to think of my business as three different tables – career, diversity, & entrepreneurship – and I believe liberation can be found no matter what table you are at. At the career table, I guide BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) professionals in navigating white corporate America through leadership and career coaching, so they can CLAIM and OWN THEIR SEAT at the table. At the diversity table, I deliver DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) consulting to organizations so they can DISMANTLE and REBUILD the table and embody DEI values to grow and scale with intention. At the entrepreneurship table, I show my clients how they can BUILD THEIR OWN tables by starting their own values-aligned businesses and living purpose-driven lives.
It’s one thing to say you’ve arrived, but it’s another to use your influence for good, change the system, and challenge structural racism from within. And it’s completely another to be a designer of new products and programs that support liberatory futures. Experience wise, I know what it’s like to be the first, the only, and the other. I know that navigating corporate spaces is complex and challenging for women and especially women of color. I know the internal struggle, emotional labor, and loneliness one experiences when pushing a boulder up a hill as a DEI professional. I know the guilt and fear of launching your own business as a first generation American child of immigrants, and the guilt as an entrepreneur to audaciously abandon [false] safety and security of a stable job to chase your dreams, do your own thing, and pursue something meaningful.
I’ve sat at all three tables, and now I’m building a community of folx centered in values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and supporting the cross-racial dialogue that’s essential if we’re going to move anything forward. Ultimately, the mission of CONSCIOUSXCHANGE is to build up and empower people of color and create workplaces and communities where BIPOC can thrive.
Can you give our readers an introduction to your business? Maybe you can share a bit about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
As a DEI consultant, it’s been a really interesting journey. I’ve formally been doing DEI work since 2016 when I became the head of DEI at Zappos. I previously worked at many companies where I was just competing with Alpha males, so when I got to Zappos, I decided I wanted to seek out female leadership and partners to lean on, and I created an employee resource group for women.
After about a year of building that internal community while in an operations and strategy role at the company, I decided that number-crunching and financial forecasting and analysis wasn’t really the path for me. So, I switched from the operational side of the business, something I’d done for 12+ years, to the human side. I ended up pitching an idea to the late Tony Hsieh and the C-suite proposing that we needed to create a formal diversity and inclusion office – and then they gave it to me, which was awesome, but then I kind of went into impostor-syndrome-panic mode. I took graduate courses in multicultural and ethnic studies to compensate, and that’s when I really started to develop more of my language and philosophies around how I think about DEI, and I even grew a deeper understanding of my own cultural identity.
By uncovering the racist stories and discriminatory experiences that I’ve had in childhood and past professional roles, I realized that even without an official diversity title, I’d been doing the work for years – winning an MTV diversity writing contest in middle school, starting a multicultural club in high school, interning in the office of multicultural affairs in college, starting a Millennial ERG (employee resource group) in my first job out of university in the buying offices of Macy’s, and more. In my own way, my entire journey has been glued together with themes of anti-racism, equity, and social justice, and I just decided it was time to own it.
I bring a social justice lens to DEI work that for some has felt a little stale over the last 20 years or so. Prior to 2020, playbooks and tools like unconscious bias training or metrics on demographics were the benchmark, and we largely had difficulty directly talking about race in the workplace.
What sets me apart from others in terms of diversity consulting is, I really subscribe to this idea from author-activist adrienne maree brown about re-imagining what’s possible. Something that’s so perfect to me about brown’s work is this idea of knowing we’re living someone’s imagination right now, a heteronormative patriarchy, and when we simply remove that thought, we’re free to imagine our own worlds. For me, it’s a world that’s decolonized, anti-capitalistic, and just different – it challenges what we know and have been taught to believe.
In my work, I think I’m pushing the idea of what has been done traditionally in workplaces and DEI. For example, I’m learning how restorative justice has applications in corporate workspaces. I’m looking at creating models that bring in multiple collaborators of not only diverse and intersectional identities, but of diverse functional expertise.
When I think of equity and social justice work, last year was really about awareness building and personal research and commitments to doing the work, but this year and in future phases, it’s purposeful dialogue that will spark actions on a structural and systemic level. Incredible tangible innovations can be made when we’re allowed space to dream and give ourselves permission to imagine what is possible. I think dialogue is at the center of how we get to liberation, equity, and justice for our workplaces, communities and for the world and I’m working on cross-racial programming that allows for these challenging yet necessary conversations to happen.
Additionally, I believe that a lot of DEI folx both internally in companies and external consultants are generalists, and they try to do and be everything. In that vein of not identifying as a generalist but as a specialist, I’m really proud to have found my voice as a 2nd generation Filipina immigrant and Asian American woman in DEI. I feel empowered to share my perspective and to carve out and express a point of view as an Asian American and to also be very specific about what I do and who I support. I cannot speak for all Asian Americans, but there’s certainly commonalities across cultural identities when speaking about the Asian Pacific American experience and unique dynamics in the workplace such as the model minority myth, bamboo ceiling, and microaggressions unique to AAPIs (Asian American Pacific Islanders).
With that, I’m also proud of co-founding AARISE (Asian American Racialized Identity and Social Empowerment) with my business partners Julia Berryman and Shengxiao “Sole” Yu which was recently featured in TIME magazine. AARISE is a community specifically focused on justice and liberation for all, centering Asian American activist history, AAPI experiences, emotional processing and somatic healing. It’s a triangular approach to justice and liberation – starting with historical context, to emotional intelligence and processing, and also healing the trauma we carry in our bodies. AARISE was born out of the pandemic when violence against AAPIs began to rise in March 2020. Especially as the violence continues through 2021, I’m honored that AARISE can be a space for learning, care, and support for my community.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I landed in Downtown LA. Coming from New York, I initially imagined myself living by the beach and not another urban landscape, but it turned out to be a place that I love and enjoy. There’s always so much going on for everyone and a lot of times, since I was new to LA and didn’t know many people yet, I would just check out Eventbrite to find events to make new friends in my new city.
If you’re into art, there is incredible street art all around town as well as The Broad which has hosted installations like Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Room. For food, I love Grand Central Market, especially the Sari Sari Store that has contemporary Filipino food like halo-halo, buko pie, and sisig fried rice. I also recommend Angel City Brewery to kick off a bar-hopping tour of downtown, then follow that up with a stop at Sonoratown for a taco tour before ending with a nightcap at Wolf & Crane for some Japanese Whiskey in Little Tokyo, or a socially-conscious cocktail at The Mermaid, a women-owned cocktail bar in the Arts District. There’s also a beautiful modern church I enjoyed visiting on Sundays, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and many other nooks and crannies to explore like The Last Bookstore.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I have a long list of shout outs to those who have inspired my work and philosophy, starting with Grace Lee Boggs, Sonya Renee Taylor, and Resmaa Menakem. More personally, my friend Shyloh Stobie who really was the first person to encourage me when I wanted to pursue DEI work. And Jeanne Markel, who when I was at Zappos, was someone who gave me access to countless opportunities. And of course, my parents who just always encourage me to try new things and are super supportive in whatever I do. Lastly, a newer friend of mine Mike Kim, who is the founder of Some Neat Place, a platform highlighting troublemakers for good and sharing inspiring stories of kindness in the world. We celebrate each other when we hit milestones, encourage each other when we have down days, and it’s been pretty dope to meet a kindred spirit, a BFF who I trust has my back, and be in community with creative geniuses like Mike who are called to imagine new futures and bring those “bat sh!t crazy” ideas to life.