Trust Yields Results: Fei Lauren on Neuroinclusivity and People-First Leadership

Aiden Dean Dunn (TDT)

It was exuberantly sunny and refreshingly cool on the Sunday before DrupalCon. In the heart of Downtown Pittsburgh, just minutes from where the conference would be held is the Bae Bae Café. On this particularly mild day, the stylish hangout had opened a wall-sized garage-door window, thus connecting its patrons with the sights, sounds, and breeze of the bustling world outside. From behind the counter, a retro speaker hummed Mac Miller’s hits, one of many proud star-children of the Steel City. Mixed into the soundscape were urgent car horns, rumbling buses, countless conversations, and the aimlessly loud declarations of the downtrodden and delirious engaging themselves in conversation.

Fei Lauren shuffled through Bae Bae’s door, seeming to question if she was in the right place, but upon introduction was amicable and easy-going. Standing on the greater half of five-foot-something, wearing loose-tied black hair and black-rimmed glasses, and sporting piercings through her ears and lower lip, Fei had the grungy and alternative look which has historically represented a divergence, even a rebellion, from the political and cultural norm. Accordingly, Fei would be giving a presentation at DrupalCon on the value of exploring modern leadership styles and the cost of excluding neurodiverse individuals from your workforce.

Neurodiversity refers to people who exhibit neurologically atypical thought patterns or behavior. This includes those on the autism spectrum – off-handedly referred to as being “on the spectrum” – and those with attention-deficit disorders, dyspraxia, and anxiety, among others. According to the National Institute of Health, an estimated 15-20 percent of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. Yet, The Center for Neurodiversity & Employment Innovation at the University of Connecticut found that 30-40 percent of people in this group are unemployed. That is three times the rate of unemployment for those with disability and eight times the rate of those without disability. Fei Lauren says this is a devastating reality for those who are marginalized. The truth is that it’s a significant loss for employers too. 

“Tech is a candy store for neurodivergent people, especially [those with] ADHD,”

a disorder that Fei herself experiences.

“Think about Drupal: there’s this phenomenal community with endless material and problems to solve, and all you have to do is show up and say, ‘I want to work on this really cool initiative,’ and the community welcomes you. The work can be high stress, with a lot of pressure and deadlines, but these are all things that really drive ADHD brains: collaboration, challenges, deadline pressure, momentum, and community engagement… [it’s a] dopamine goldmine.”

Fei Lauren’s presence is not authoritative or commanding but empathetic and trustworthy. She holds eye contact and conveys a sense of presence. Toward the end of our conversation, however, she confessed that she was exerting significant effort just to self-present this way. The myriad noises of the café, the eye contact, and the fleeting questions all made it difficult to mask signs of her neurodiversity triggered by the stimulus.

But the toll was hardly noticeable; above all else, it was manageable. This is essential to one of Fei’s main claims: that neurodiverse workers do not require the intense attention and concession that many employers fear they might.

“In many ways, our brains aren’t actually that different from neurotypical brains. Everybody experiences challenges with neurological functions. It’s just that if you have ADHD, it’s constant… We all have dopamine in our brains, and we all need that dopamine to function. My brain just doesn’t process that dopamine in the same way.”

She speaks with self-assuredness and passion but crafts statements cautiously, like a driver approaching a yield sign. Then when the road is clear, Fei hits the gas.

“You cannot have innovation when you only have people who solve problems the same way… When you have diverse thinkers and people with diverse experiences – not just those who are neurodiverse, but all manners of diversity – they see the world in different ways and are able to help solve problems in different ways.”

After years in web development, Fei has taken on a new position as a scrum master at Renesas Electronics. Scrum is a flexible management ethos focusing on short-term goals and empowering individual workers. Fei describes herself as a teacher whose curriculum is to show a team how they can streamline work, reduce stress, and make systems of use more resilient. Regarding her work at Renesas, Fei says,

“I feel so much more free, and I feel a lot more trusted. If I get a really cool idea and feel inspired to do it, I have a lot of support in that.”

As a result, she spends more time working on the projects that inspire her.

Similar to a work environment that focuses on worker well-being, creating a more diversified workforce yields better results and happier workers – but it requires the time and care to support the individual. Reminiscing on a previous Drupal Diversity Camp, an executive experienced in managing people with disabilities touted these workers’ positive attributes to a crowd: they were more loyal, harder working, and took fewer sick days than those without disabilities. Sensing an exploitative undercurrent in this messaging, Fei reflected,

“There’s a very fine line between saying ‘bring me into your workforce because I have value as a diverse thinker’ and ‘bring me into your workforce because I will make money for you.’ The latter says, ‘I am a resource,’ and the former says, ‘I am a talent.’ Human beings are human – if you hire a human, you need to treat them as such.”

Studies in Forbes, among other high-profile publications, show great profitability in hiring diversity– but the expectation of profit is hollow if the employer doesn’t create an environment where individuals can thrive. A seed won’t blossom simply by being put into the soil. It needs sunlight and water too.

So, what does an employer need to do to prepare their workplace for those who are neurodiverse?

“Not much, as much as you might think,”

says Fei Lauren.

Neurodiversity is just one form of diversity, and a person cannot understand the complex experience of someone else simply by picking up a computer and doing some quick research.

“You don’t need to learn about neurodiversity first; you need to learn about psychological safety first. You need to learn how to build trust with your team and demonstrate that you are willing to support them – to bat for them. Because if you do, then they will be more willing to tell you about what they need and what is and isn’t working… As a leader, you just need to learn how to build trust and ask questions.”

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