Investing in inclusion and development

Laura Isaacs’ story

Laura IsaacsAccepting the Disability Equality Index award on behalf of the firm
When I was preparing for my interview at Grant Thornton, something on the website that stood out was the concept of bringing your whole self to work. That’s important to me as a person with both mental health conditions and physical disabilities. I needed to work someplace supportive, a place where I can continue to expand my skills and be involved in activities outside of my actual job.

That’s exactly what I found here. I’m the executive assistant for 14 partners. I support them in everything from making travel arrangements to creating PowerPoint decks to event planning including logistics of virtual meetings. Every day is different, and I’m kept on my toes in organization, communication and proactivity. I love the variety; my job also includes compliance auditing, improving processes and training new employees in a key procedure.

Laura IsaacsThe 2019 Disability:IN Conference with Partner Mike Santay, member of Diverse Abilities BRG and Disability:IN board
I’m busy. For the most part, you wouldn’t know I have disabilities if I weren’t so open about them. I suffer from bipolar disorder and anxiety, and I have chronic pain from fibromyalgia and sporadic exhaustion from chronic fatigue syndrome. It was a huge relief to discover that people here actually walk the talk. My manager and I laid out a plan that allows for flexibility so that I can be effective in my job. I leave early for therapy one day a week and if I need to take a 30-minute break because I’m not feeling well or a walk around the block because I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can do that. I use my cane, and explain my mental health struggles and what it’s like to go to therapy. It’s important for people like me to be able to say, “I have these issues but as you can see, it’s not stopping me from being successful and doing the things I want to do.” It makes a big difference that I have a team that urges me to go home if I’m in pain. Sometimes I do that and work from home, other times I go home and rest.

My team is aware of my disabilities and is understanding. They regularly check in to see how I’m doing. I have great friends and tremendous support. The people at this company are the best thing about my job.

Laura IsaacsWith my mom on a trip I won from the firm related to my volunteer activity with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Chicago
I also love my extracurricular activities. Even though I’ve been an executive assistant for 23 years, Grant Thornton is the first place where you can step outside of that wall and take on a leadership role. I had been here for only six months before I became the national coordinator for the Diverse Abilities business resource group (BRG). The opportunity developed as I helped plan a BRG webcast. I was offered the role and accepted it as a chance to learn and to grow my leadership skills.

This was the beginning of recognizing how the company invests in people and their development, and what that means to me:

I’m empowered
I’m supported and encouraged — and challenged. I can go to my manager and say I want a goal that’s going to stretch me. He doesn’t hesitate, because I’ve proven that I’m capable of handling a lot. I’m creative in working around, with and through my disabilities.

I’m heard
Grant Thornton took on sponsorship of the Chicago Walk to End Alzheimer’s after I went to leadership and said the cause is close to home because of family members afflicted with the disease. Leadership listened to something of importance to me.

I’m understood
Recently someone came to my desk and said that even though she doesn’t have chronic pain or understand what it’s like, she wanted to acknowledge that I get up every day and come to work, and how hard that must be. That made my whole week.

Laura IsaacsAt the Shakespeare and Co bookstore near Notre Dame
I’m appreciated for my authentic self
As an African American woman, I wear my natural hair. I tend to wear a lot of bracelets and rings, and if it sparkles I’m all about it. I love bright colors and twirly dresses. I’m comfortable knowing that others see me for who I am. You get the best version of people when they’re not concerned about straightening their hair or having long nails and wearing five rings, or covering up the fact that they’re LGBTQ or have a disability. It’s so much more enjoyable to work with someone when you know you’re getting that person’s authentic self.

I feel that everyone is welcome here. I look forward to meeting the people who come through our doors.

Making my impact at Grant Thornton Besides supporting an active group of professionals, my biggest impact is in being open about my disabilities and making it normal — a part of my life just like the fact that I have brown eyes. My hope is that this helps others to be more comfortable about asking questions and sharing experiences of their own disabilities or those of people they know. Sometimes I can educate people about what a disability is and the resources available to them.

Laura IsaacsPresenting to the Diverse Abilities BRG and CDW’s ABLE BRG as a NAMI Lived Experience speaker
A related and vital impact is the growth of the Diverse Abilities BRG. In my national coordinator role, I’m a liaison among the executive sponsors, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and the local office chapters. I oversee the local chapters of the BRG, keeping in touch with leaders to make sure they have what they need for their chapter to be successful. For national events, I have responsibility for overall planning. I find speakers and coordinate their presentations. An opportunity for critical outreach is a webcast during October’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month. This year’s topic is summed up in the title — “Making the invisible visible: Mental health at work.” It will be a fireside chat format, and topics will include removing the stigma around mental illness in the workplace. Last October I moderated a panel at the Disability:IN Opportunity Summit. With a lot of promotion, and closed captioning and Q&A, we ensure that these events are inclusive.

Laura IsaacsPromoting office Pride Month activities with Equality GT BRG members and allies
My initial goal was for our BRG to gain visibility and reach. In the two years since I took my role, we have more than doubled our membership, expanded to eight chapters and are presenting these webcasts. My current goal is continuing to increase membership and drive engagement. To further expand our reach, I’m working on creating an external network with other companies and their disability-focused BRGs. Nothing like that exists right now in Chicago. My idea is that if we pool our resources, we can all be more impactful, individually and as a group.

At Grant Thornton, the ultimate goal of all our BRGs is bringing together diverse groups of people and through the combined strength of their diverse thoughts and experience, better serving our clients. Because I value this concept, at various times I have been active in BRGs other than the Diverse Abilities BRG. I am also a member of our Chicago office Culture Action Team and lead culture conversations every month.

I believe in the contributions of diversity and inclusion, and I’m fulfilled in being deeply involved in promoting them.