The co-founders of Beyond Barriers are on a mission to accelerate the advancement of women in leadership positions.
Nikki Barua and Monica Marquez share a zest for life and a passion for the advancement of women. Their company, Beyond Barriers, is a platform for leadership coaching, personal transformation and community engagement designed to help organizations accelerate women in leadership. The idea was born in 2018 on the sands of Fiji, where the couple – who met at an EY event – were honeymooning. They wrote separate letters spelling out what they wanted in life, then shared those with each other. Both listed a common vision: living a life of purpose and creating impact at scale that could lift up other women. What followed was a leap of faith. Nikki, whom we first profiled in 2017, wound down the digital transformation consultancy she had guided for eight years, and Monica shifted from her long career with global organizations to start their new company together. The two, who spent separate periods of their careers at Ernst & Young LLP (EY US) – Nikki as a Strategy consultant and Monica as US-West Region Diversity, Inclusiveness & Flexibility Leader – spoke with us recently about their shared mission and ambition.
Where did the idea for Beyond Barriers originate?
Nikki: It came through our lived experience. For me, as an Indian immigrant who had to figure out corporate America, so much of it was learning how to navigate. But I didn’t have the support structure, the mentors and the community who could teach me. It took a lot of trial and error. As I advanced, I didn’t see many people who looked like me at the top, and it made me think: how do I pay it forward?
Monica: As a young Latina from West Texas, I was first-generation college, first-generation corporate. I realized pretty quickly that just keeping your head down and working hard wasn’t going to be enough to get ahead.
Your company has the same name as Nikki’s 2018 book. Is the company a natural extension of the ideas in the book?
Nikki: Yes, it was the catalyst that led to the company. I wrote the book based on my own experience and those of other women who had overcome obstacles to achieve success. Over the years, I had adopted winning habits and a success framework that helped me advance in my career. When I joined the EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women program, I discovered that other successful women had a similar blueprint. That experience was truly profound for me – both in terms of growth and belonging. As women entrepreneurs, we all had similar struggles, vision and this belief in something bigger than ourselves. I interviewed several of the Winning Women, and then codified the shared experiences and strategies. I was surprised by the great reception, especially from women of color and disadvantaged women around the globe. That led me to turn the book into a workshop and live event, which went so well that it sparked the idea of turning it into a scalable platform for leadership coaching.
What is your shared vision for the company, and how has it evolved during the pandemic?
Monica: One of the challenges I experienced as a DEI professional for 25 years was the inability to easily reach and develop large numbers of women in global organizations. How do you serve everyone everywhere within the available company budget and resources? I kept having conversations with Nikki about how to have impact at scale and how coaching paired with leadership development can act as an equalizer between men and women. Even before COVID, we landed on the idea of leveraging a data-driven digital platform with virtual cohorts, so that companies could provide affordable access to coaching for every woman in the workplace.
Nikki: We knew that to create impact globally, we must democratize access to resources and relationships that propel women forward. We also saw (and continue to see) organizations dealing with new challenges with retention and burnout – and how women were disproportionately affected over the past 18+ months. That was another accelerant for us.
How do you approach your roles in the company?
Monica: I’m more of the solution innovator, and Nikki is the business builder who obsesses about scale and leverages her expertise in digital transformation.
I’ve had a lot of experience understanding the systemic barriers that hold women back and thinking, “How do you get the solution out to the masses?” I understand the pain points and I’ve pioneered breakthrough solutions. One example is the Returnship program I created and pioneered when I was with Goldman Sachs, a ”first of its kind” program tapping into the hidden talent pool of women leaving the workforce – and helping them re-enter and reinvent themselves. Together, Nikki and I are both focused on offering innovative solutions at scale.
What are the greatest barriers you see that block women from advancing in leadership?
Monica: Most companies that have been around for a long time started with homogeneous leadership teams – and many times they didn’t change their original definition of success. When you bring in women and other dimensions of diversity to that established culture, it is harder for them to achieve success. The biggest barriers are a lack of guidance to navigate critical career stages, access to valuable resources and relationships, and performance visibility, which helps you get tapped on the shoulder and intentionally pointed toward opportunities that can advance your career.
So how can those barriers be overcome?
Nikki: We’ve defined five keys for individuals to accelerate success: clarity of knowing yourself and your unique skills; the confidence and courage to overcome your conditioning and limiting beliefs; the ability to anticipate change and move forward in the midst of uncertainty; learning how to be effective in execution across all dimensions of your life; and building a community beyond your family and friends to find people who may not be like you but can advocate for you.
We provide access to the strategies and the how-to, with playbooks and curriculum on these topics. Our concept is to bring together expert coaches, proven strategies and communities that create that safe space and sense of belonging so women can expand their networks and advance in their careers.
Monica: Part of growing is being able to ask for what you need. That’s why cohort-based coaching is so effective in helping women develop stronger professional networks they can level-up with.
As we enter Hispanic Heritage Month, tell us how advancements for women of color, particularly Latinas, might be accelerated.
Monica: There is a fine line between assimilating and acculturating to an organization’s culture. Self-promotion as a woman in some Latino cultures has been a no-no. But you have to do some of that to be visible. As a Latina who is also LGBT+, I know some of those pressures are compounding. We’re all different, and we all have visible and non-visible dimensions of diversity. The key is to acculturate rather than assimilate. Identify the key success habits that you need to adopt in order to get ahead, but also hold on to the unique intersectionality we each possess that sets us apart. One of the best studies on race and gender intersectionality is by Dr. Ella L.J. Bell Smith, who serves on our advisory board and recently re-released an updated version of her book, Our Separate Ways.
How did your EY experience shape your career trajectories?
Nikki: What I valued most was the level of investment in people development. I was an immigrant who had just finished my MBA but felt completely out of place. But EY had program after program that taught me so much, and I got to work in an outstanding team environment. Those early skills that I learned in an elite professional organization, doing strategy work, put me with senior executives very early in my career. So, it was certainly a great launching pad. Later, being part of Entrepreneurial Winning Women was instrumental in helping me recognize the value of the very concepts we’re using today.
Monica: I came to EY after a long career at Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. EY showed me what powerful relationships and community are, as well as entrepreneurial spirit. I learned how to think bigger, ask better questions and solve differently. I also realized how important coaching is and got certified as a coach through an EY program. Coaching is so powerful, but you have to have coaches who understand how to navigate corporate culture to really help people.