Mill member profiles

Nichelle Whitney: The Guarden

by Apr 6, 2021

Nichelle Whitney still remembers the day she arrived back in the US after a period of living in beautiful Madrid, Spain. “I landed during a snowstorm, and I just kept thinking, ‘This is the worst decision I’ve made in my life.’ I was the last person to get off the plane. I remember looking at the flight attendant, and asking, ‘Can I just circle back?’ And she said, ‘Ma’am, we can’t help you. You gotta go.’”

It took a few detours, but today, Mill member Nichelle is exactly where she wants to be. And as founder and CEO of The Guarden—a consulting firm offering diversity education workshops, cultural sensitivity training, and cultural remediation—she’s charting a flight path to a better future.

The Guarden is the natural outgrowth of Nichelle’s other work. And that other work, quite frankly, is a lot. As senior assistant director for admissions at Indiana University (IU), Nichelle is responsible for several territories and serves on the diversity recruitment and outreach team. 

She’s also chair of the Monroe County Women’s Commission, which sponsors Girls Coding Week and Brown Girls Who Code. In addition, she serves as a fellow for the board of directors for the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, and as state chair of the Inclusion, Access, and Success Committee for the Indiana Association for College Admission Counseling. Finally, she’s staff champion for the Black Women & Tech Alliance through IU’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology. Whew.

“I’m not a tech person. I like to say that I’m a tech-adjacent professional. I always try to support marginalized groups in many different industries, one of them being tech, because that’s where Black and Brown women are so under-represented. I try to let things bleed together and let different opportunities nurture the others.” 

The Guarden, “a place where things can grow,” is all about nurturing opportunities. It started in 2018 as a podcast. After three seasons, Nichelle began wondering how she could expand on the concept. She started creating vision boards and imagining a new career for herself as a motivational speaker and a leader on the topics she felt most passionate about: diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). People regularly asked her if she could do some DEI work for their team or organization; in a sense, she was already acting as a consultant.

“The way I approached the podcast was, ‘I’m going to bring you education. I’m going to give you tips for accountability. We’re going to build in grace.’ Well, as a consultant, that’s also who I am.”

“One day someone asked me to do a workshop, and I went out on a limb and said, ‘This won’t be part of my work with IU. This will be under my hat with the Guarden.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, that’s great.’ And I was like, ‘What? You’re just going to accept that I just said that?’” 

“I had no formal business plan. I had no building. But I knew the pillars that I stand on with DEI work. I knew how I show up as a consultant, and I knew that every time I do work for people, they learn, and they engage, and they love it.”

“So I get that first contract for myself. I make a whopping $50. I was so proud! I didn’t want to cash the check. I put it on my refrigerator. I don’t think I ever did cash it.”

Nichelle credits another Mill member and consultant, Sharr Pechac of GreyPrint Consulting, for giving her the confidence to go forward. “Sharr was transitioning out of conventional higher ed into being a consultant. And it was amazing watching someone who has so many years of experience and was a pioneer in the field—amazing work!—go from working for someone else to working for herself. And I just kept thinking to myself, ‘Nichelle, you’re writing proposals, you’re editing proposals, you’re doing mind mapping— if you can do this for someone else, you can absolutely do it for yourself.”

After the first contract Nichelle secured, others started to roll in—but many were unpaid. Like many new business owners, Nichelle wrestled with how much to offer on good will, and how to transition to charging for the important, ethics-based work she had done for free for so long. In this sense, her brand of entrepreneurship was also different from many other Mill members with product-based businesses, even when the product was also intangible, such as software as a service (SaaS). But the more Nichelle did the work for the Guarden, the more she understood it as a business, with many possibilities.

“Someone I met at The Mill said, ‘Do you have a subscription service? Say you do work for a client. They want to continue their education. They can’t afford to bring you in, but they can subscribe to a certain amount of products each month.’ That type of stuff had never crossed my mind.”

The next step for Nichelle was growing the Guarden’s team “from me to we.” Her broad community involvement proved invaluable. Through her work at IU, she met someone with a social justice background who wanted to learn from the Guarden—and was willing to contribute social media to the cause. Then, through her role as chair of the Women’s Commission, Nichelle met a criminal justice researcher who investigates how race, gender, and class are impacted by systems—and now collaborates with the Guarden. Next, the team added an intern, an IU student studying public law and policy who can speak to the strange power dynamic of being a Black police officer on campus.

“The end goal is that everyone who has an experience in The Guarden grows through their education around race, class, gender, and identity. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum, if you’re at the point of resistance, or if you’re at the point of, ‘I’m energized and motivated around this work.’ We help people build toolkits for dealing with DEI stuff.”

Tech in Color meeting of Black tech professionals. Photo by Faith Blackwell.

The Guarden’s popular imposter syndrome workshop offers an accessible (and surprising) entrée into discussions about culture, implicit bias, internalized messages, and their behavioral and team repercussions.

Nichelle explains, “It really brings into question, how did you get to the place of being an imposter? How does that impact how someone shows up in the workplace? Why do they seem defensive or competitive, for example?”

“We talk about this with the lens on culture, how people experiencing imposter syndrome were given a certain set of messages throughout life. Women: ‘If you negotiate, you’re seen as aggressive, so don’t negotiate your salary, just take what they offer you. Then you seem like a team player.’ Men: ‘No way, you’re too masculine to be a nurse!’ ‘What, Black people and leadership? Black women and leadership?’”

“All these messages are based in implicit and unconscious bias. Sometimes it’s explicit, but these are cultural conversations. We talk about the book The Confidence Code for Girls, about how girls stop raising their hands in the classroom as early as fourth grade. Why? Because a certain set of messaging has already been planted.” 

“Now imagine living with that for 30 years and never dealing with it. It absolutely impacts how you show up and how you see the world. And at the end, we do a self-assessment where they see where do they fall on the imposter syndrome schedule or scale. And then we build a toolkit to move forward.”

“That’s what we do in the Guarden. We are all about giving people the education in a way that is digestible, but holds them accountable, and then building a tool kit that helps them one, stay committed to what they’re supposed to be doing, to continue learning, but two, offers grace as well.”

Every session is different, Nichelle says, even when the training tools are the same, because the people in the sessions are different. The facilitator has to take into account the individuals in the room and tailor the conversation to them. Her own approach to interacting with people is built on important concepts from her faith: forgiveness and grace. 

“Grace is completely unearned,” she explains. “We show up as imperfect people every day. We make mistakes every day. But God still gives grace to us. Now human systems, you’ve got a judicial system you’ve got to answer to, but that doesn’t change your spiritual relationship.”

“So when I think about the concept that grace is unearned—you just freely give it—I think about how so much grace is needed in such racially tense times. People don’t know what to say. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know what to believe, they don’t know what to feel.”

Nichelle combines that grace with frankness. “Some people are like, ‘Listen, white people, y’all built this racist system, y’all dismantle this racist system.’ Then you’ve got white people who are like, ‘I’m a freakin’ ally. I do the best I can to make people feel included and welcome, and so now I feel attacked that you’re saying that the problem is white people, because I didn’t do this. I’m not responsible.’ People of color have ancestral history passed down: ‘These generations before you were slaves.’ That’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of pain. We’re trying to work through it.” 

“You’ve got to give people room to learn and to make mistakes. I get paid to do DEI stuff, and I still screw up! Grace reminds us that people are human, that people are flawed. Grace says we all get placed right here on an even playing field. I don’t care if you’re Mother Teresa or someone else.  I’m going to give to you the same grace that I know I’m going to need.” 

“I embed grace into each of the trainings because I believe that that is one of the answers to racial healing, to racial tension. While we’re working through the systemic things, if we can provide grace to people that is completely unearned—then I think the door stays open for us to continue having conversations, to continue to be creative, to continue to show up as our authentic selves.” 

She pauses. “Now, I’m not saying you’ve got to be BFFs! Everyone is not invited to the cookout. They’re not.” She chuckles a little.

Nichelle in referee uniform with partner, surrounded by balloons

Nichelle with soul-mate, business partner, and best friend LeMark Wash II at the Banneker Community Center. Photo by Ellise Smith.

“But when you talk about seeking racial healing, and we talk about being in a place where things can grow, I want people to get to the place where they say, ‘Even if I do not like you, even if I don’t agree with what you’re saying, I can give you grace enough to leave the door open.’ Because some people won’t get this training right now. They’ll get it when their grandkids fall in love with a person who identifies as they/them. And some people are never going to get it.”

“I firmly believe that what we do to others, it will be done to us, or those that we love. So we can honk that horn in traffic. We can withhold this opportunity. We can say this inappropriate thing. But that stuff always comes back to you. I firmly believe that, which is why I believe in grace. The grace that I’m about to give to you, I hope somebody gives it to me.”

In the last year or so, The Guarden has completed 21 contracts, including some international consulting opportunities. The contracts are bigger both in numbers—one client has 325 staff to train—and in dollars.

“We have an amazing advisory board. We have staff. We’re able to sponsor scholarships. We’re sponsoring basketball leagues for a community center. Our clients invest in us, so we invest back in the community.”

Nichelle, grandmother Clara Zell, and youngest brother LaJuan Whitney celebrating after a high school basketball game pre-COVID

One of the most exciting opportunities, Nichelle says, has been working with Justus Coleman Kelley, Mrs. Indiana, whose platform is Building Inclusive Societies, and delivering workshops for her program. “Seeing Mrs. Indiana talk about her experience—everyone sees you as perfect, your body’s perfect, your hair’s perfect—for her to sit upright and say, ‘I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome, and here’s my score,’ that was phenomenal.”

“I find all these things so fulfilling and so engaging. I love what I do, for sure. I’m definitely a person who likes to do all the things, all the time. I’ve stepped back from some things, but for most part I’m just in it. I’m in it to win it.”

Learn more about The Guarden.