Using her voice to help local businesses in their recruiting efforts

Deborah Biddle has a varied background that suits her entrepreneurial spirit
vintage microphones around deborah biddle
Photo by Timothy Hughes

Deborah Biddle has a varied background that suits her entrepreneurial spirit. Although much of her career has been in corporate finance, she has also been involved in nonprofit work and other interests, including singing. She no longer sings professionally, but the professional coach seems to have found her voice and uses it to help her clients.

At a Glance
Name and title: Deborah Biddle, founder and chief consultant, The People Co. LLC. (Also a member of the Verona School Board)
Racial ethnicity: Black
Birthplace and hometown: Waukegan, Illinois
Background: Grew up in the 1960s and ’70s with a sense for social justice, civil rights and feminine independence.
Career: Former corporate accountant and former recording artist; singer, entrepreneur, professional coach and certified diversity professional from the National Diversity Council
Came to Madison: In 2006 when her husband took a job at American Family Insurance
Family: Husband Lloyd and sons Jason and Jared

How did you arrive at naming your business The People Co.?
Originally when I started my company [then called High Performance Development Solutions LLC] in 2016, I thought I was going to do more in the career coaching space and executive coaching. As I started working with different clients it became clear that the focus of my business was going to be diversity and inclusion. But I wanted to be able to have some flexibility in terms of what I do, so I didn’t want to necessarily put “diversity” in the name of my company in case I decided to pivot into some other area. So as my husband and I were brainstorming, we came up with The People Co., because if I had decided to do executive coaching or diversity coaching, consulting, training and development, or whatever it might be, it could all be contained under “people.”

Did you always know that you wanted to work in the field of diversity?
Not really until about three and a half years ago. My background is in accounting and finance. I did corporate finance and accounting for three Fortune 500 companies and spent the bulk of my career in that field. After my first son was born I decided to start a consulting company. I was doing small business consulting and helping small businesses get their accounting systems up to date. Then my husband and I started a nonprofit doing marriage ministry and music ministry because I’m also a vocalist. Over the course of that time I started a record label, recorded some CDs and then toured. And then while I was at a PTO meeting, we were having a discussion about achievement gaps and disparities in the schools. I don’t remember what I said but it must have been impactful because our superintendent asked me to be part of his staff to work on the achievement gaps that existed in the school district and help improve relations between faculty and staff with minority students and their families.

So that was my first entry into the space, but it wasn’t something I really thought about doing until years later, after we moved to Madison in 2006. When my husband changed careers and decided to go into full-time ministry, that’s when I said, “OK, I’m probably going to need to get another job,” because he took a significant pay cut. I started working as a career coach for a client services company here locally. I was a career coach by day, and then trying to build my business by night and on weekends, working until the wee hours of the morning. Word got out that I was doing diversity training. I eventually left the company to go into business fulltime and I haven’t looked back.

Where does your entrepreneurial spirit come from?
I think maybe growing up my parents always let me try stuff. I would come home and say, “Well, I want to join the drill team,” and they would say, “OK.” Or I’d come home and say, “I want to sing, I want to be in this play at school,” and they’d say, “OK.” When it came to my career choice, one of the reasons I majored in finance instead of music was because I also grew up thinking I have to be able to take care of myself, and a music career just didn’t seem like it would be viable, especially during the early ’80s when I graduated. I said, “I’m going to major in finance and be safe.” I think what really helped me see that being an entrepreneur wasn’t as dangerous as I thought was when my husband, who was in banking when he graduated from college, left Citibank to become an insurance agent. It really worked out well for him. He spent almost 20 years at American Family. So I think it was watching him do it that let me know that it’s doable. You can make it happen and you can be successful.

deborah biddle singing into a microphone

Photo by Timothy Hughes

Having lived in the area for 14 years, what is your view of Madison?
When we first came here, we were excited because we had heard such great things about Madison. But the first year that we were here we got like 100 inches of snow, and then there was torrential rain, and we had flooding in our basement. And so our initial experience of the weather was not a positive one and it really hasn’t gotten a whole lot better. Then we were thinking that the school systems were going to be so much better than the school district in Gurnee, Illinois, where our kids were going to school. They weren’t worse but they weren’t significantly better either. But I will say there is a lot for children to do here if you have the means to do it. The downside for them is that the community of color is so small here, which is very different than where we came from. So being able to see people who look like you and engage with people who look like you is a bit of a challenge. We chose to live in Verona because of the school and it really isolated us from the black community in Madison proper. And because we also don’t go to church at one of the main black churches in the Madison area, we really didn’t have a sense of community as people of color here. So we have to be really intentional about becoming involved in organizations where there are folks who look like us because we just don’t see them on a day-to-day basis. An upside of Madison is that it really is pretty easy to be connected here. If you want to meet pretty much anybody, from the average person to the governor, you will have opportunities to meet those people in Madison.

What has been the most crucial thing that has helped you connect?
Connecting with my sorority, Madison Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta, was key, and I intentionally joined the choir at Mount Zion Baptist Church. I sang there when I wasn’t singing at High Point Church, which is where I go to church. Singing at Mount Zion gave me a connection to what was happening in the black community that I just wouldn’t have otherwise known about. Being part of both of those, and then just making sure that I was on the mailing list for Umoja magazine and connecting to things that I knew existed pretty much all over the country, like the NAACP, or 100 Black Men, or my sorority — making sure we connected with those organizations so that we would have a sense of community.

Do you talk about that kind of connection in your diversity work?
When I talk to people and they ask me about recruiting people of color, I talk about it. I talk about it as a black person, but I also talk about it from the perspective of being a Latinx or Hispanic person, or really anybody who’s part of an underrepresented group here in Madison. I think if you’re talking about recruiting and retention you have to look at how you’re going to connect people to this community. Then I suggest to clients that if they really want their new hires to stay, they should drive them around Madison, show them the neighborhood, introduce them to key people and sincerely try to connect people to the resources that are available. Answer simple questions, like, “Where do I get my hair done?” Or “Where are the ethnic restaurants and ethnic grocery stores?” I think that would go a long way in connecting people.

Is there anything else that you want to let our readers know about your diversity work?
In the last three or four months, I’ve really been trying to focus on the idea that diversity and inclusion are two separate things. Often we talk about diversity and inclusion as if it’s all one thing. And I’ve been really trying to distinguish the two. Everybody’s different. But what makes the difference in our interactions with people is our mindset about inclusion and exclusion. Inclusion is a choice and it’s a choice to be empathetic, a choice to be patient and understanding and gracious and forgiving and welcoming, and inviting people into your realm and also extending yourself into someone else’s. And it doesn’t mean that you have to agree on every single thing. In fact, there should be a little bit of tension
in most relationships because we’re not the same. But that requires us to in some way regard others more highly than ourselves so that we all have a sense of value and importance and feel respected and that we can all work well together and be better together, be more productive together.

Karen Lincoln Michel is publisher and executive editor of Madison Magazine.