Queering company values with diversity, open mindedness, and kiss sessions at the office

For their second event, Queer Tech Montreal had the opportunity to interview Pholysa Mantryvong, CEO of Enkidoo Technologies Inc, a Montreal-based start-up specialized in artificial intelligence powered by cloud computing.

His moving talk was a distinctly Queer perspective of how overcoming hardship as a gay man helped him embrace resilience and better understand what it means to be Queer in entrepreneurship.

In the first of this two part series, Queer Tech Montreal Blog’s Jason Berhmann portrays Pholysa and how he defined the main values that guide decision-making at his startup.

Here is Pholysa’s story.

From covering to being “out” in the world of startups

When Pholysa was a young boy, his family immigrated from South East Asia to Québec. Like most LGBTQ+ people, he knew since childhood that he was “different”, but could not at first understand how. Subtle hints about his difference surfaced from his affinity to, how do we say, more elegant and agile childhood activities; for example, at primary school he was well known as a champion of the game, elastics.

Coming out to his family at the age of 18 was a transformative event. Him being gay resulted in significant conflict whereby his family presented him an ultimatum: become straight or leave. He left. A period of hardship followed, where Pholysa dropped out of school, endured homelessness and survived a near loss of life from a suicide attempt. Surviving suicide awoke in him a fierce desire to rebound and flourish. Pholysa was indeed remarkable in his perseverance and went back to school to complete his Bachelor’s of Industrial Engineering at the Université de Trois-Rivières.

Surrounded by a machismo environment at his university’s engineering department, he felt the need to “cover” by presenting a hetero identity. He recalled resisting his irresistible urge to extend his pinky finger while nursing a beer bottle; clasping the finger under the bottle’s neck was his covert solution. When entering the workforce, he decided he would never subject himself again to an environment where he had to cover — from then on he was going to be himself.

During the interview for his first tech job in aerospace at Pratt & Witney, he was bold and came out, asking pointedly about the company’s stance on homophobia and diversity in the workplace. Without hesitation, the interviewer replied being gay was a non-issue because the company has distinct and affirmative policies for diversity. Throughout Pholysa’s corporate career, he observed companies embracing the value of diversity in the workplace as a new normal — and with good reason: in business, there will always be LGBTQ+ people in the workforce. His past employers placed their rightful focus on talent and work ethic rather than prejudice.

Once experienced in the tech sector, Pholysa then acquired a position as a management consultant specializing in technology. The world of consulting enabled him to tackle numerous challenging projects, his most impressionable being real-world applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and cloud computing in industry. Long before these two technologies became common buzz words, he saw the immense potential of AI working in tandem with the cloud. A startup opportunity opened before his eyes and he felt his entrepreneurial spirit call from within to follow his dreams. He no longer wanted to be an employee, but instead, a leader that does business according to his rules. Since launching his tech startup, Enkidoo Technologies has grown to ten employees. His team strives to revolutionize business management procedures by coupling AI to cloud computing.

Outside of workplace confines, Pholysa has long played an active role in several community organizations and philanthropic initiatives, ranging from GRIS-Montréal, les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, and the Museum of Fine Arts. From directing fundraising and publicity events for these groups, Pholysa acquired essential leadership and teambuilding skills he needed to be a successful entrepreneur.

What guides Enkidoo? A Queer take on company values

By building their startup from the ground up, founders produce an entity that inherently reflects their core values and deepest convictions. For Pholysa, his greatest influencers that determined the values, culture, and decision-making at Enkidoo Technologies originate from three fronts:

  1. Understanding policies that make work environments supportive and inclusive.
  2. Knowledge gained from observing recurrent problems at companies where he provided his management consulting expertise.
  3. Living as a Queer minority.

Let’s delve in to the top three values at Enkidoo.

Value 1: Promote diversity on all levels

To make an environment most conducive to good work, people must feel comfortable with who they are and feel included within the team. To achieve this goal, Enkidoo members strive to promote diversity on all levels so that when a member of the team has a particular difference, no one notices all that much. The overarching aim is to normalize difference so that one’s gender expression or sexual orientation are simply “non-issues”. Regardless of one’s identity, difference is never a factor that matters and definitely is never an issue targeted for critique. This goes beyond identity. Equally important is the need for diversity of thought and to have employees from different cultural backgrounds.

To date, Pholysa is the only gay man at his startup. In his efforts to normalize diversity, he made sure from the launch of his company that his hetero employees were included in LGBTQ+ business environments, such as events hosted by the Chambre de commerce LGBT du Québec. This enabled Pholysa to establish a close, trusting relationship with his staff. From the get-go, he and his employees understood no one needs to cover and they are free to be who they truly are at work.

Value 2: Embrace open mindedness

When working amongst smart, talented people and one person has managerial control over a project, that person may fall into a trap where they think everybody ‘gets’ them. Fallible humans like to think they’re right even when that’s the furthest from the truth. To counter this common challenge, Enkidoo upholds a policy of open mindedness.

This concept values employees who assess the strength of their ideas alongside those of their colleagues regardless of their hierarchy. Employees set out on this weighing of ideas knowing well that the best ideas are hybrids of the original two. Open mindedness reminds everyone to expect that their ideas may have weaknesses; knowing this head-on positions this startup for efficient decision-making that avoids bigger problems down the road.

Value 3: Sharing is caring

At Enkidoo, employees enjoy weekly KISS sessions in the office. While the thought of making out with your colleagues will either enthrall or mortify you, KISS in this case refers to: knowledge information sharing system. Pholysa sets an imperative for all employees to transfer insights to their fellow colleagues. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant, team members must share any new knowledge gained, especially knowledge from failure. The success of this initiative hinges on the fact that all employees are encouraged to disseminate their knowledge without fear of judgement.

Pholysa Mantryvong is the founder and CEO of Enkidoo Technologies Inc, which was recently accepted to the Next Founders cohort for 2017.

Written by Jason Behrmann, originally published on Queer Tech Montreal blog.

(Photo: NPR.ORG)

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