Pioneer Profile: Meet Polina Changuleva

19th Feb 2024

It’s time that we recognise the people behind the evolving world of work. Our working lives have shifted to being more inclusive, more people-centric, more flexible, and just plain better for both employees and companies. 

These changes didn’t just happen: they were put into place and upheld by individuals and teams working to create a better working future for everyone. 

So we’re finally putting the spotlight on the people who make great companies great: the people-people.  

People-people are crucial to the success of every company. They find you the talent that drives you forwards, and they’ve taken on an increasingly strategic role in the past few years – often taking on responsibility for mental health, diversity and inclusion, culture, EVPs, Employer Branding and team happiness. 

Read more about the Pioneers List and go behind the scenes to understand how and why we’ve selected our Pioneers.

We’re delighted to introduce you to Polina Changuleva, DEI expert & founder @ Same But Different, and one of our 2024 Pioneers. Read on to hear all about her career, her experiences with flexible working and building great company cultures, and her hopes for the future of work.

Let’s dig in! 

Tell us a little bit about your career history, and how you got to where you are now. What were the key milestones?

At the start of my career in the UK, I found myself in workplaces where I was the only woman and the only minority ethnic employee which led to plenty of sexist, ageist and discriminatory comments and behaviours regularly. A few jobs later I decided it was time to be more intentional in my selection of future employers and went on to work for companies considered to be DEI champions in the tech space such as Yahoo and Xbox. Yet the gap between our aspirational inclusive future and today's reality remains huge and I truly believe that it will take all of us to narrow. 

Having seen the impact of minority leadership development programs for myself in my time with Thomas Cook, I was inspired to own my voice and step up to champion and serve others. In the years after, I went on to lead the Women’s Inclusion Network at Yahoo - one of the biggest names in tech and work for some of the world’s biggest brands as a Cultural Advisor and Racial Justice advocate. 

Wanting to use both my privilege as a white cisgender heterosexual woman and the stigma attached to being neurodivergent and minority ethnic or “the only one in the room” for good, I created Same But Different Consultancy. I’m proud to say that Same But Different is the world’s first Joyful Inclusion consultancy and a space where we embrace each other’s differences and celebrate our similarities.

My work on challenging stereotypes and transforming cultures has led me to partner with organisations such as Yahoo, Lego, Publicis Media, Reward Gateway, Google, Verizon and more.

Outside of my work with for-profit organisations, I continue to challenge the status quo as a Diversity Advisor for 50:50 Parliament and Social Impact advisor for refugee and domestic abuse organisations across London and Africa.

When did you become interested in flexible working, EVPs, Employer Brand, and the future of work?

My interest in flexible working started when I joined Yahoo back in 2019. It was the first time I was exposed to flexible working - 4 days in the office and 1 day WFH before that was a thing (pre-pandemic). 

Yahoo was also one of the few companies allowing remote work at the time which was  highly valued by employees given that 30-40% of our London and Dublin workforce at the time was of foreign nationality. Needless to say, the impact such policies had on our productivity, job satisfaction, and mental health was invaluable. It led to people taking less time off and productivity and business performance skyrocketing. 

What is the most impactful change that you’ve implemented?

As someone who has worked on everything from creating Racial Justice groups to shaping remote and later on hybrid working culture for big tech, it’s hard to pinpoint which was most impactful.

So here are some my favourite initiatives I got to work on which went on to make waves:

  • Introducing free period care products for those who menstruate
  • Creating a Global Book Club educating employees on topics such as racial inequality, financial literacy and more. Bringing in experts and providing free books and the safe space to have conversations we wouldn't otherwise have in our daily lives at work. The book club started with 50 participants in the UK and went on to reach 1,000 across the globe in the space of a few months. 
  • Creating Yahoo’s first hybrid work policy for EMEA and growing employee engagement significantly during time of uncertainty and isolation in 2020/2021
  • Mentoring program seeing 100s of young people getting mentored by business leaders in 1 day
  • In collaboration with charity partners, creating professional and personal development programs for refugees in the UK to aid with their integration in society and adjustment to life in the UK beyond basic legal, community and health support. The initiative included coding bootcamps, Life in The UK introductory sessions, CV writing workshops, language classes and more

What’s the biggest impact flexible working has had on your own life?

The ability to work remotely has meant that even as an immigrant who lives away from their family I’ve been able to be there for my loved ones at key moments in life such as during my mom’s months long surgery recovery or shortly after losing a family member to covid. 

It’s not only given me the opportunity to be there for the most important people in my life and have balance but to have the headspace to be fully present at work when it's time to deliver knowing I don’t need to sacrifice my sanity and wellbeing.

What's the biggest challenge of being in your role right now?

Two words - diversity fatigue. We are all feeling it and we are all experiencing it for different reasons. You don’t need to look far to find articles and opinion pieces on why DEI is dead, why DEI doesn’t work or how tired people are of companies using diversity as a box ticking exercise.

What started off as a spur of good intentions, decisive action and big promises following the murder of George Floyd is starting to wear off and people are growing weary.

Where companies once created ambitious plans and long-term DEI goals and initiatives supported by employees of all levels (on the surface at least), we now see the opposite shift - companies backtracking and even removing their diversity goals.

DEI programs are shrinking from lack of support from C-suite leaders, while employees are failing to understand the point of diversity training programs and feel disengaged from DEI efforts.

And we are all feeling it. There are those who may feel there is too much emphasis on DEI for the sake of political correctness. Those who feel responsible and committed for driving DEI efforts forward but see inadequate results and support and others such as underrepresented groups that see it as a strategy used by organisations solely to enhance and further their brand instead of creating real change.

And so we are all tired of talking about it and not seeing significant changes. 

While I do understand the sentiment and feel the tiredness regularly myself I often like to remind people that many of the employee rights and individual human rights we have now didn’t exist 20, 30 or even 50 years ago. Not to mention that societal change takes time. We simply can’t afford to stop now and give up. 

You want to see how far we’ve come as a society? Watch a Netflix comedy special from 10 years ago and I promise you’ll see very quickly how much our views on various experiences of minorities have changed over the span of just a decade.

What do you think the next big trend is in working culture?

DEI will finally become an integral part of businesses and not just a nice to have and honestly it’s about time.

Despite the resistance to change, all points to the fact that the UK population will consist of over 50% people of colour in the next 20 years or so. 

In the next few years we are also set to see ¾ of the workforce consisting of millennials and Gen Z and there’s a ton of data suggesting they deeply care about organisations’ environmental and societal impact as well as larger social good causes. I’d know, I’m one of them.

When you add to that the fact that 80% of workers say a company's inclusion efforts are an important factor when choosing a company it becomes obvious that unless you adapt to the climate you’re about to get left behind struggling to keep and hire top talent, struggling to innovate and grow. 

The last few years have left many of us with a sense of distrust in institutions, political systems and the financial industry which has put the spotlight on businesses to carry the responsibility, do the right thing and be the ‘saviours' we all so desperately need to create a positive impact.  

I do think we are currently walking up a hill but the tipping point for diversity and inclusion actions is coming and many are in denial about its arrival and what it means for systems and society as we know it. 

Where I believe the shift will take place is the move of DEI from being a peripheral focus to the way we work and being incorporated across each and every part of a business. Exciting times ahead. 

Take a look at the other Pioneers who made the list, and subscribe to our newsletter to get updates on new Pioneers, guides to help you navigate your strategic role, and exclusive invites to webinars and events