Kyla Whitlow

Leveraging the Indigenous Advantage: Kyla Whitlow Creates Digital Inclusion in Banking

Leveraging the Indigenous Advantage: Kyla Whitlow Creates Digital Inclusion in Banking

How can we create spaces where people belong in the banking space? It’s a question that Kyla Whitlow deals with every day. She is from Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario, a proud Haudenosaunee woman whose family lines are Hills and Powless. She works with Scotiabank in community design, doing user experience design focused on LGBTQ2S+ and Indigenous communities, enhancing experiences and making the virtual space more inclusive. Whitlow recognizes unique ways of interacting that are culturally specific that make experiences and information more accessible for not just Indigenous peoples, but for all people. She refers to this as the “Indigenous advantage”.

Whitlow didn’t grow up with technology, she spent most of her time playing with her cousins in the time before the internet. After high school, she was invited to play lacrosse in North Carolina, but returned home after a week after realizing it wasn’t for her. She went to school for psychology at Lakehead University to help First Nations communities, revitalize her culture, create psychologically safe spaces, but found the traditional ways of learning in university didn't really fit into how she saw herself and how she learned.

A friend would introduce her to the banking industry. Numbers weren’t her strong suit, but she was well coached, mentored. She would later join the Talent Acquisition team and build a program to promote the recruitment of more Indigenous peoples, then moved on to her current digital inclusion role.

Inclusion is important to Whitlow as she reflects on her experience in the workforce. “Sometimes going into these corporations, you feel like you're two pieces of yourself.  Everybody is always telling you, ‘you can bring your whole self to work.’ I showed up as an Indigenous woman and just a banker, and I can tell you, there were times when I would bounce between these two identities and for me, it was that breaking point where I needed to be able to feel like one person coming to work.” She meets with many Indigenous people that work at the bank to talk about self-identity, and how sharing who you are or not at work is up to you.

She also talks about intergenerational trauma. “Some of us don't know everything about our families and that was by design. But that opens the door to rediscovery. If you can bring your whole self to the place where you spend more than eight hours a day, generally, you're going to feel empowered to learn more about yourself and more about your family. Then you can celebrate that with the people who are around you all the time and turn into family at work,” she continues.

Helping people understand how they have agency over where they share who they are is something she enjoys, so staff know there is a community within the organization where they can be themselves and have rewarding career paths. That’s a confidence she has for herself and it inspires her.  

“In my life, I feel like I can do anything. If I wanted to stop and completely change career paths, there's always going to be an appetite because I have a really unique worldview. That's what I would say is inspires me to continue to grow - that worldview to understand people, to connect with people, but also to know that the next generation and my daughter, and the youth that are coming up today, they're so vocal and so strong compared to what we were as kids.”

“That inspires me to keep forcing the doors open for people because they're going to come in and blow things up when they get to the age of employment and looking for that next thing in their life. I know that there's a generation coming really fast behind me, that is not just going to make an impact, but we need to open the doors for them. Looking at my daughter, I would love somebody to open that door for her when she's ready to go into the world,” she continues.

Illustration by Shaikara David

Her advice for youth considering leaving home to pursue school or work is insightful.

“It's a rollercoaster ride in the sense of your emotion and your gut instincts around where you want to be, what feels comfortable, it's a brand-new world out there.”

She suggests connecting with local friendship centers, band offices and other community resources. Whitlow thinks youth should trust their gut when making safety decisions and to honour those feelings of discomfort and walk away if things don’t feel right.

In navigating new relationships, she says,

“Not everybody deserves all of you. Be comfortable with how much of your story you're giving to people, and how much you're sharing about your personal life with people, because that's all part of who you are. Safeguarding parts of you, is really important as well.”

Being herself at work has created opportunities and barriers, but she encourages youth to be themselves.“The biggest challenge for me was, and I'm a fairly little person in stature, is that my voice can be bigger and badder than anybody else's and I demand that attention. When I don't receive that attention, I have very logical ways of making sure that I exercise my voice in who I am as an Indigenous woman and my views to their full extent. That can be a barrier. I've had bosses talk down to me and not be an advocate of me because I had more knowledge in the space and can connect well with people, and it made them uncomfortable. It's normally social and political constructs that you're going to have to come up against and just dealing with that is going to be difficult, but if you know who you are, and you're comfortable in who you are, you'll pick and choose what experiences are for you,” she explains.

Her advice for her grade six self would be to say, “somebody is always watching you. So be very conscious of the decisions you make and the things you feel embarrassed about, because somebody is keeping an eye on you and always wants to mimic you."

“And so it's important to stay strong, in who you are and what your beliefs are and know that your gut instinct is the instinct to follow.”

She doesn’t come to that from a place of shame but rather to acknowledge that people need inspiration and to remember that you are an inspiring person for other people.

When she’s not working, she likes to read, stay active and be inspired by other Indigenous peoples in the world. She loves lacrosse and sharing her culture with her daughter. These are things that shape who she is as she works in the world of banking, answering the question, “how do we create spaces where people belong?”. Knowing who she is and what she believes in helps her create welcoming spaces and encourage others with her bravery and wisdom. She may not have felt she was strong with numbers in the beginning, but what she brings to the table adds up to an Indigenous advantage and a unique worldview that is creating change.

Special thanks to Alison Tedford for authoring this blog post.

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