TAMPA - At 41, Ashley T Brundage has already taken quite the journey.
She’s pushed past workplace harassment and discrimination as a transgender woman, worked her way from bank teller to vice president for diversity and inclusion at PNC bank and recently published a book called Empowering Differences.
That’s a subject she knows well: how to use what’s different about yourself to build not a wall but a stage.
Brundage maintains the “T” — just the letter T, no period — as her middle name, an homage to the “dead” male name she was given at birth and does not use.
Here’s a recent conversation with the energetic and in-demand speaker who is longtime spouse to Whitney and parent to two high school boys.
Your career began at Boston Market?
I started there as a part-time server making $4 an hour. I grew in that career presenting as a straight white male. In the first three years. I was running a team of 50 people.
I left after the 2008 (global financial) crisis. Not living authentically was literally killing me.
When you tell your story, the word “homeless” sometimes comes up.
I was working in a virtual call center part time, I was a bookkeeper part time. We were squatting in our house, waiting for the bank to fully take over.
I knew I wanted a new career. But I wanted to work somewhere I knew I would be embraced. Every day that went by was very difficult not being myself.
After that, you interviewed as Ashley. This was long before Caitlyn Jenner, or actor Laverne Cox on the cover of Time. What responses did you get?
We don’t hire people like you. Or you have the wrong address. Or please leave.
So that experience was really earth-shattering. And I could’ve hid. But that’s when I started using the process of empowering your differences.
How does that work?
Obviously the transgender community is a major difference I had. Not going to college is a major difference I had. Having red hair. You start choosing to highlight what’s different about you.
Step one is knowing yourself, step two is knowing others. The next step is to develop your strategy, when and how and what you’re going to share about your differences.
If I was in a job interview, I’m one of approximately 2 million transgender people in the U.S. I’m now able to position being trans as one of many. You never want to be on an island.
I would say I overcame homelessness, discrimination and harassment — imagine what a great employee it’s going to make me.
It’s that holistic lens of looking at yourself. That’s the super power I think the trans community has.
What prompted you to write a book?
I had always been kind of writing a book, because everybody was like, “Ashley, your story...”
I did not just want to write a memoir because that story’s not been told yet. I picked a part of my story that could be helpful to anyone, that would have mass appeal and that would be a good business decision.
Because no one wants to write a book for 1 percent of the population to read. But empowerment applies to all.
Your book seems to be written for someone embarking on a career and figuring out where they fit, or maybe how the world should fit them. Does that sound right?
That’s definitely the primary demo. But learning about these steps can apply to a business owner, a CEO. It can also be applied to relationships.
We sometimes scare people because of that word diversity. Before transitioning, I would see the word diversity and think, that doesn’t include me because of the color of my skin or the fact that I was then presenting as a male. Differences should not be something they’re afraid of.
The book emphasizes rising above negativity. How does someone do that?
Every time you encounter an obstacle, you have a moment in how you choose to navigate that obstacle. Instead of building a wall to protect myself and hide myself, I used it to build a stage.
How far have our workplaces come in terms of gender identity and expression?
Every day it’s advancing. Workplaces are on a journey. It comes down to individual biases, and if you aren’t comfortable and don’t know of someone who’s different, you may have already formulated an opinion.
One of the amazing things I love to do is my volunteer work with GLAAD (formerly the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.) We produce an accountability project. (The project documents anti-LGBTQ words and actions from politicians, journalists and other public figures.)
I highly recommend the documentary Disclosure. It shows the reason for bias because of how the transgender community has been portrayed in the media.
You have to get to know people who are different than you. I have Republican friends, Democrat friends, Independent friends. If I let my sphere be only one difference, then I’m not empowering differences.
That’s the uncomfortable zone. Your best work will come from that space.
How far do we have to go?
I think about this a lot, what’s going to happen 50, 60 years from now when a kid looks in a history book. And it’ll say 2015 to this end date will be the Trans Civil Rights Era.
It’s going to be at least five more years before we see real systemic change.
Do you hope for a time when that fact about you is a detail, like your red hair?
Totally. I think there are circles where that is just a difference, depending on what city I’m in, just no big deal. But I can sometimes drive 15 minutes from where I am and be in a place where I don’t know if I’ll be welcome.
On a happier note, what do you do for fun?
I really do just love spending time with my kids and doing whatever they want to do.
I volunteer for GLAAD, which takes me on the red carpet for media awards in New York and Los Angeles when we get back to that in 2022. Shopping. I will do theme parks. I like to travel. I actually do play golf.
What’s next for Ashley T Brundage?
I have 41 speaking or press engagements this month, from companies like Walmart to our event at the Oxford Exchange coming up.
I’m starting an outline on my next book, about taking empowerment to the next level with connections to leadership. It’s usually a cisgender (someone whose personal identity and gender correspond with their birth sex) male. But why can’t it be someone like me?