Faith-Based ERGs & Building Bridges at Work - Barbara Villasenor

Faith-based employee resource groups can be a bridge to building relationships within your own faith and across different faiths at your company. These rich relationships can benefit both faith and work. One example of a successful faith-based ERG is Google's Inter Belief Network. Guest Barbara Villasenor is a founding member and global chair of Google's Inter Belief Network, co-lead of the Google Christian Fellowship chapter, an economics business partner to Google's chief economist. Barbara talks to us about ERGs, her own experience starting one, and how these groups can improve the experience of work.

Scripture References

  • Acts 18:1-3
  • Isaiah 11:2
  • Isaiah 43:1-2

    Additional Resources

    How to Start a Faith Based Employee Resource Group (ERG) - Playbook

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    Transcript - Faith-Based ERGs & Building Bridges in the Workplace - Barbara Villasenor

    Leah Archibald: Faith-based employee resource groups can be a bridge to building relationships within your own faith and across different faiths at your company. These rich relationships can benefit both faith and work. One example of a successful faith-based ERG is Google's Inter Belief Network.

    Barbara Villasenor is a founding member and global chair of Google's Inter Belief Network, co-lead of the Google Christian Fellowship chapter, an economics business partner to Google's chief economist. Barbara is here today to talk to us about ERGs, her own experience starting one, and how these groups can improve everyone's experience of work. Barbara Villasenor, welcome to the Making It Work Podcast.

    Barbara Villsenor: Thank you for having me.

    LA: It's so good to talk to you today. This group sounds exciting, an Inter Belief Network at Google. Tell me how did the group get started?

    BV: Yeah, thank you for having me, I love your podcast. I love this, listening to a lot of the episodes on here, so it's really an honor to have the opportunity to share. Yeah, it all started with really a vision of what would it look like to have communities of faith be part of the ERG communities or employee resource groups as we call them. What would it look like to have communities of faith be part of this program and be an official group, if you may. Partnering with a company to ensure that not only our employees are feeling fully included and welcomed, but also that our users are getting the products that are the best that we can provide, all inclusive, no biases, etcetera. So it was an exciting opportunity that started my journey. I'll share about my journey. When I started at Google in 2014, 2013/2014, I felt... I'm a Christian, I'm a believer, I love to pray and talk to God, and I really felt the Lord say, "I wanna be here too." I'm entering the tech world, I'm a new, what we call Googler Noogler, new Googler. And I'm a Noogler and I'm just excited to be there, and I'm like, "Lord, what do you have here at Google?" And I really felt like there was this like God just wanted to be present in the company, like in here too. And I just started praying, I'm like, "What does that look like? God, what does that even mean?"

    I didn't even know resource groups existed, I had no idea what that was, but I knew that there was at least for me, in my experience, I felt like there was some opportunity to just be present, bring my full self to work, as we call it. What does that look like? So I had a lot of questions, and maybe not a lot of answers initially, but, one thing I felt called to do was what I call the love movement. So I started sharing my vision with some Christians that I met through some of the lunches that were organically happening already. And I met a few folks and I just said, "What would it look like? Let me share my vision, let me share what I feel like the Lord is saying." Some people thought I was crazy, that's never gonna happen, we're never gonna have something like that at Google. And then I also had some believers, a few handful of them who said, "You know what? I'll pray with you about that. I'm gonna pray for that." And so it started with prayer really.

    And we began to meet weekly, some of the Christians, a few Christian friends that I shared the vision, they said, "Let's pray together." And we met weekly, and then after some time with prayer, again, I felt called to start this love movement. What does this look like to love our colleagues with Agape love? Which is Greek word Agape, which means the greatest form of love, right? Some of you guys know that, and I thought, "How cool would it be? How can we love our colleagues with our actions, not just with our words? What does it look like to be a group, a community of Christians who can just love our colleagues and we can be known for that?" And yeah, so it started off with that, my personal journey, from that we eventually met other religious communities that were also sort of organically forming, maybe having a few lunches here and there.

    Meeting in some of the conference rooms for a little bit to pray or get together and we met, so we learned about some of them, like there was a Jewish group they call themselves the Jewglers. And we met some of them, we also met... We learned about there was a Muslim group, they were sort of self-organized as well and we just said, "Let's... " One of my colleagues said, "Why don't we start having lunch with them? Let's break bread with them." And so after many years of these sort of this what started with prayer from the Christians that led to this like mini love movement and what does it look like to love our colleagues with our actions and sort of really volunteer our time to help other colleagues outside of our core work. Eventually the third sort of phase if you may, was meeting with the other religious groups. Just breaking bread with them, having lunch with them, we love food at Google, it's one of the fun perks, I'm sure you guys have heard that we have. Yes, they do feed us lunch, [laughter] really, really good lunch, so one of the benefits, but we... The company, you know what, if we're gonna get together with someone it has to be over lunch.

    So we started doing that about once a month and then that eventually led to, "Hey, you know what I've tried to be an official group." "Oh, we've also tried." "But wow, what if we came together and tried together." And then eventually that led to the formalizing of the ERG that we decided to name the Inter Belief Network, and there's a reason for belief versus faith there. So we can share about that as well.

    LA: I wanna get into some of the ins and outs of how you turned a passion into a real group. But I love just starting with this idea of being a newbie, like a Noogler, can I use that term? I don't work at Google, but I like that term, like coming to this idea of what is God doing in my work with newness and freshness? Mark, what do you think? Could we call ourselves Nooglers or something like that?

    MR: Well I rather think...

    LA: New Podcasters.

    MR: That's for Google people, we're gonna have to come up with something that fits us, but it is kind of cool, I am with you there.

    LA: I like the idea of coming into a new job situation and saying, "Hey God, what do you have for me there?" As opposed to in with a lot of preconceived notions of this is what I need to accomplish in terms of the people I wanna reach in my workplace or how I wanna influence them. It sounds very much from your story that that wasn't how you approached your colleagues, either your Christian colleagues or your colleagues of other faith.

    BV: Yeah, no, I think as a Noogler as a new employee of course there's the excitement of the opportunity, right? Google is an amazing company to work for, they hire top talents, I don't know if you guys have read Laszlo's book on Work Rules. I remember reading that and it really just found it really fascinating, organizational psychology, the guy is a genius but helped build the culture at Google with the benefits. And the concept of really making sure that employees feel not just welcome, but like a part of something bigger than themselves. And the ideas of really making a difference in the world around you, this guy is a dreamer and so am I. And so, of course there's the excitement of being a new employee, but yes, as a Christian at that moment in my life there was... It was a big turning point I wasn't... I was praying, actually, it was a very intentional prayer before I got the job offer asking the Lord, what do you have for me next? So I knew day one that Google was in fact without a doubt, where the Lord was leading me to, I remember praying and just hearing like the word like just missions, missions and Japan. And what's funny is that during that... During the prayer time after I started at Google, it's funny.

    I ended up living in Japantown in San Francisco, and I do feel... It does at times feel like there's, like you're a missionary in the tech world, and just living out your faith, bringing your full self to work, what does that look like?

    LA: And how do ERGs help you and your colleagues bring your full selves to work?

    BV: Yes. ERGs at Google, they're inclusion programs, diversity, equity and inclusion to really help build a sense of belonging for employees. So that they feel that they can bring their full selves to work. How that really happens, for the Inter Belief Network, we organize lunches, we have... Gosh, we host speakers on educational topics, we host panels and anti-hate. How can you maybe be an ally to your religious colleague? So that's been actually really great to see.

    We've put mentorship programs together, and if we can enrich the experience of a mentorship from our career capacity and discipleship-making as a Christian. If you can partner with another Christian who's maybe in the same ladder or career path that you are and it's 10 years ahead, not only does it benefit the workplace, right? We wanna be excellent, as Christians, we're called to be excellent for God, including where God places us in the workplace. But also if you can find a mentor who shares your beliefs...

    And we put together a matching algorithm to pair people up and what does that look like? And that's been fruitful at Google for a Google Christian Fellowship, for the chapter of the Christians at Google. That's one example, some of the things that we do, we've hosted amazing speakers, authors like, Tim Keller, we had the privilege to meet him and host him. He came and talked about some of his books, gave a talk, you guys can find that on the talks at Google Channel, on YouTube. And those types of opportunities I think were really something I treasure looking back at the years that were foundational to forming this ERG, this resource group. So research groups really help communities within the company, inside the world of Google, with thousands and thousands of employees, [laughter] from all over the world. We have offices from Singapore to London to New York, the community that exists with a culture that has been built and nourished and cared for over the years is really something that is... Something to admire really to where we are. I enjoy our workplace, and I think the inclusion programs at Google have done a really good job at, once.

    They hear the voice like, "Hey, oh wow, we didn't even know that this was something that was needed." And when they started hearing from us, they really partnered with us, and so now we are at this place where not only we have this stamp of approval if you may, from the company to not only meet and have these lunches, but also to host speakers and inform these communities where we can also have programs, what we call product inclusion. Product inclusion is essentially employees volunteering their time outside of their core role to explore the opportunities, look into our products and see how we can improve them as we innovate and add features to our products, to ensure that they're inclusive to communities of faith. And so if you think about it, it's not just... What started as, "Hey, how can we be part of this group?" Or how can we fully belong, right? As communities of faith where we weren't included before, but now we are. So there's this internal cultural thing that's really awesome to be part of, but also we are helping improve our products every single day for the billions of users that use our products. So it's been a win-win, that started with a vision that started with really love what we call agape love. Let's love our colleagues, and it started with little baby steps, in some years we formalized in 2018, by the way.

    LA: Talk about getting up to scale in a very short period of time, that's part of Google's story. But that's also part of the story of our faith is scaling up, I don't know if you think there are any parallels in the Bible here, Mark?

    MR: Well, you could certainly do that one. What I'm struck by, Barbara, is your commitment, and I'm sure those who've been partnering with you in this, to be on the one hand authentically Christian in an environment that isn't in a Christian environment. And that's not criticism, that's it's a secular context, but to be authentically Christian, to emphasize love. So you didn't go in arguing for your place, the focus was on love. And even as you describe your group, I'm sure you get together and there's fellowship and prayer you mentioned that and that's great. But also there's this, I sense as you described it, this sense of purpose and service, service to your colleagues, service to your customers, to your employees, to folk in the world, which I just find that very inspiring. And I would imagine that kind of focus also helped open some doors at Google, because I don't know exactly the Google story, but I do know most companies were not... Didn't think about a faith or belief when it came to DEI, and there was even resistance. But somehow you and your folk have managed to move through that, and I just wonder if the orientation to service and to kindness and to inclusiveness of folk of other beliefs has been part of what helped open that door.

    BV: Yeah, yeah. There were definitely moments where we felt God's provision and... Every step of the way has been God's provision and guidance. And with prayer, praying for wisdom and discernment, Lord, how do I operate like you said in this space that's secular, we want to be authentic, we don't want to not be ourselves. We definitely wanna bring the fullness of who we are called to be, in our workplace, not just as Christians on Sunday, we wanna live that out every day. And with prayer, and I think obedience is a really important part of that as well. I think as Christians there's a prayer aspect, but then there's a taking the step forward of obedience. And if God is calling you to something, I think the step of obedience, I think that's one way to begin or continue to learn the voice of the Lord is like by being obedient. And I mentioned obedience because for me personally that's been a learning journey. How do I hear God's voice? What does that even mean? How do I step into that fully? And that comes with practice, that comes with prayer and faith and belief in reading the word. But yeah, just thinking of...

    LA: When you say reading the word, I wonder if there are particular passages of scripture that have informed this journey for you on how to hear God's voice or how to gather people together authentically.

    BV: Yeah, I think there are definitely, Isaiah 11 was one that definitely a mark, one of those marking chapters for me and just all of Isaiah. But stories for me personally as well. Like Jesus going to the Samaritan woman at the well, like kind of stopping for the one, like Jesus always did that, right? He would always stop for the one, that he would be with the crowds, but he would always also take the time to go to the one, the people that were in most need. And I think of that, thinking of this group. I'll start with Isaiah 11, specifically, the spirit of Lord will rest on him. The spirit of wisdom and of understanding the spirit of counsel and of might, the spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord. And praying for wisdom and for understanding.

    I do believe God answers those prayers. And there might be times when you're in the workplace and you might not even realize kind of what's around you, but you're taking a step of faith. You're moving forward, "Okay, I feel like this is a possibility. I think this would be great. This is a great vision. This is a great idea. Lord, I wanna partner with you in this. Is this from you?" And taking a step forward. He does give you the wisdom and discernment to step forward every step of the way. And I do believe, again, from my personal experience, from the very beginning, day one at Google has been led by him. And there are times when you wait, right? Initially we reached out, I requested the group, and initially it was not a green light. There were some...

    LA: You mean from human resources, they didn't give you the green light to support your dream?

    BV: Correct. There was not a green light initially. And there are times of waiting, right? There are times where the Lord says not yet. And I do believe that's really important in the Christian walk and as we walk with the Lord, like, and that's part of the wisdom and discernment in his perfect timing, to trust him. I've learned like that's how your trust in the Lord increases by, sometimes there are seasons of waiting, sometimes there are seasons of activating and moving forward. And then I've learned a lot. And so Isaiah 11 is one that definitely, is such a good reminder of those foundational beginning... The season of beginning and helping build this group, to go to him directly for the wisdom and discernment that's needed, because all credit goes to him, right?

    MR: Yeah. That's great. Wow. Leah, you'd asked me, is there anything in scripture like ERGs? Actually, there is an ERG in scripture and I'm thinking...

    LA: Oh, really?

    MR: There is. So as, many of us know, the Apostle Paul, was a tent maker, a leather worker, and he supported himself for his mission work by working. And he could go in different places and do his leather work. And, but in those contexts, he would meet a lot of people. But in Acts 18, the first part of Acts 18, there's reference to a couple in Corinth, named, Aquila and Priscilla, though she sometimes is called Prisca. And it says that they got to know each other because they were of the same trade. And in fact, Paul lived with them for a while. So what we have then is in the leather-working community in Corinth, we have these believers in Jesus who got connected and are sharing in life together, supporting each other in their work. And as we know from some of Paul's letters, Priscilla and Aquila actually became really important colleagues in ministry. But that is an ERG in the tent-making community in Corinths. And it's right there in Acts 18. It's just a perfect sort of model for the kind of thing, now you're doing Barbara, in such a different context.

    BV: Wow.


    LA: That is very, very cool, Mark. I don't think I've ever thought of a ERG in Acts, and now I'm never gonna be able to read that [laughter] passage the same way again.

    MR: Any of our listeners go look, and they might think, "Are you making that up?" No, you go look, what I described is what was going on. It was the first, maybe the first Christian ERG ever.

    BV: Wow.

    LA: Well, it's absolutely a group of workers who are coming together to resource each other, both, in their work and outside their work in their overall spiritual development.

    MR: Yeah. The other thing worth saying there is Paul, he did his Christian work, if you will, his missionary work on the side, but also in 1st Thessalonians, he talks about doing that in the context of his workplace. And there's been some real study of that, that for Paul it wasn't just like his side gig to represent Christ, but it was part of his working life and witness. And so, again, it's just a great model for the kind of thing, Barbara, that you and your folks are doing.

    BV: Yeah. Thank you. Again, that's... I've not... I did not make that connection either, Mark, so thank you. That's, I'm gonna really sit with that. And...

    That just reminds me of, just some of the work that we're doing with the Inter Belief Network. Our structure is, of course, there's one ERG, there's one umbrella ERG, with separate religious chapters. So if you're trying to picture the structure, we have six separate chapters, different religious groups. So we have the Christians, the Muslims, the Jewish, the Hindus, and then there's an interfaith chapter, the Buddhist. And so with... We're not a blend, I think that this is, sometimes people get confused a little bit with the structure. We are not blending of religions. I'd like to make that very clear. We highlight the differences, via education forums and what we call allyship courses, education courses that, again it's another perk, another great thing to have. Now that we're an official group, we're able to put these sort of educational courses together for employees. Anybody that wants to learn more about what our colleagues are up to, they can sign up. It's not proselytizing or anything like that, but, and that's part of our mission. Our mission at IBN is to promote a diversity of beliefs, compassion and mutual respect for all the people like Google and in our products through service, education, and mindfulness to build a peaceful, knowledgeable world, it's a big mission.

    But education is a really important part of that mission. And so thankfully now that we have this established group, we're able to do that. And Mark, as you're sharing that, I'm just thinking of some of the opportunities that we've had to partner with the internal teams at Google. One example of that is food. That's so important, like I said, to our culture. We love food at Google. Then there are, of course, some of our religious colleagues, there's halal food with permissible under the Islamic law. Right? So for some of our colleagues, that's really a priority that's important. Kosher meals. So the food aspect that we've been able to partner with teams at Google to really expand on that and help colleagues feel welcome at Google, not excluded if they go to an event or something, or they're just having day-to-day lunch with their colleagues, they're able to have these Kosher meals or halal food, etcetera.

    Another example of where the Inter Belief Network has really done, I think, great work is with the inclusive scheduling. As you know, religious holidays are very important. And in the Christian faith, we don't have necessarily any specific holidays that don't allow us to work. Thankfully, a lot of them do land on weekends, in the West at least. But there are holidays where, there are religious strict holidays, where some folks are not able to work. And so we've been able to partner with internal teams to ensure that important conferences or sort of must-be in meetings aren't scheduled during these important holidays. And so that's an ongoing work in progress, but that's been really helpful.

    And then the third thing I would say again, is the allyship courses focused around education, where we can be a voice, we can have a seat at the table, and say, "Hey, you know what, this is my main identity as a religious colleague. I'm a Christian, that's my main identity. I'm more than being a Latina, I'm more than being a woman. I love all of these things, but really, truly for me, my main identity is in Christ." And what does that look like in the workplace? What does that look like with everyday things? And identity and belonging is something that we talk about a lot at Google, and I know other companies do too. It's really important for a lot of people. So really central.

    LA: That's a really good point, 'cause I know some Christians might be afraid of starting an interfaith ERG or being a part of one. They might say, "Will it compromise my faith to be in a group with people of other faiths?" And I love this idea that you have layered identities. We all do, and we all share our identity as workers and as advocates for each other. And we can do that without compromising our central identity, which is as a person of faith, and in this instance, of faith in Christ.

    BV: Amen.

    MR: Yeah.

    BV: And that reminds me of another verse you asked me earlier about what verses really were helpful to me in the beginnings of this, Isaiah 43, but now this is what the Lord says, "He who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel, do not fear, for I have formed you. I have summoned you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I'll be with you. And when you pass through the rivers, it will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned." These verses were so encouraging to me, and just such a reminder of not only God's love for me as an individual, but the opportunity that we have as employees to bring your full self to work. And that means asking yourself, how can I love my colleague better today? How can I be the best employee I can be for excellence for the Lord? How can I make sure that there's... That my Jewish colleague doesn't feel excluded in whatever scenario, and there's anti-hate comfortable safe places for conversations where we can say, "You know what, you've experienced this sort of discrimination that is not okay," and if that's been outside of work, but at work at least, "Here's the work that we can do. Here's how we can be an ally to you in the workplace."

    LA: I think that is a beautiful place to wrap up our conversation. I want to... We have some resources on our website for people who are looking to start their own employee resource groups, but I wondered, Mark, do you have any big-picture thoughts as we're wrapping up this conversation?

    MR: Well, Barbara, again, I just, am so appreciative of the way you have thought about and lived your faith in the context of your work in many ways, and helping to create the ERG is certainly part of that. But I think what you've said about what it is to be a Christian at work is just so important, and will be inspirational and educational to folk, whether they work in a big giant corporation like you do, or whether they work in a little, teeny one. The question of what does it mean for me to love my colleagues? And especially as you articulated, one way that I can love my colleagues who have a different belief or a different religious tradition is by seeing that they're treated well, and fairly, and being an advocate.

    And so it's not just about, we Christians need our thing and our space. It's about, it's a whole lot more like how Jesus was, they weren't inviting him to all kinds of meals with people who weren't his followers because he was always obnoxious and arguing for his people and his thing. The Jesus that we know was one who was there to love and to give, and so I, anyway, so I love that sort of that whole emphasis. And again, I think that's gonna be encouraging to folk if they have an ERG to ask, "Hey, how are we doing in terms of loving our neighbors at work?" Or folks who are just, "Man, I'm in this little three-person business, but what does it mean for me to love my colleagues today?" So thanks for being such a great example of that.

    BV: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    LA: And I'll say to our listeners, if you're interested in learning more about how you can start your own faith-based employee resource group, we have some materials on our website. We'll put them in the links, in our show notes. You can also go to and find our whole playbook on how to start a faith-based ERG. You can even Google how to start a Christian Employee Resource Group, and our workbook will come up as the first instance, as the first search result. So thank you, Barbara. I know you did that personally. But this has been such a great conversation. Barbara Villasenor, thank you so much for talking to us on the podcast today.

    BV: Thank you both. Thank you, Mark. It's so good to be here. Thank you again, and what an honor to be able to share about what the Lord is doing in the workplace and to be able to partner with him in what's unfolding. It's exciting. It is finished. It is done. He is so good.

    LA: Amen.

    MR: Amen. Thanks.

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