Nadia De Ala on the importance of knowing yourself and doing it your way

As part of our #WTDSpeakerStories, we spoke with Nadia De Ala about her journey as a speaker, how she uses speaking as an integral part of her coaching practice, the importance of self-care in speaking and other areas of work. 

In our Women Talk Design Speaker Stories series, we’re interviewing Women Talk Design speakers about their journeys and experiences. We talk to speakers who are just getting started, speakers who have had their fair share of speaking mishaps, speakers writing books, and speakers curating events. At the end, we offer an opportunity for folks from the WTD community to ask their own questions and connect with each other. Visit our events page for more information about the series and RSVP for our next event.

Event header image for Women Talk Design Speaker Stories with Nadia De Ala on Wednesday April 19th written in white font on a dark pink background. There is a round headshot photo of a woman with shoulder-length dark brown hair wearing an animal print, v-neck shirt and glasses, smiling into the camera.

Nadia De Ala is the founder of Real You Leadership, a facilitator, and a leadership and negotiation coach supporting women of color in technology to thrive in their careers and close their leadership and pay gap. Previously in tech sales for and as the first Senior Account Manager at HelloSign, she understands what it means to navigate being “the only” — the only woman and only POC in the room.

Nadia has coached 150+ individual contributors, leaders, managers, and VPs to thrive in their lives and careers at companies that include Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Disney+, Hubspot,, Expedia, Uber, Lyft, Dropbox, Roche, Splunk, and Salesforce.

Through Real You Leadership, she has partnered to host workshops and talks for leaders in General Assembly, Google, Kapor Capital, WeWork, Gusto, Airbnb, Flatiron Health, Niantic Labs, Splunk, Clever, 2U, and the Women’s Watermark Conference. Her work has been featured in CNBC, HuffPost, FastCompany, New York Times Kids, and The Muse.

On her transition from tech to coaching and speaking

Nadia talked about how she moved away from her previous career in tech, recognizing that it wasn’t working for her.

“I was climbing up the wrong career ladder and I was extremely burnt out, extremely unfulfilled. I started therapy and self-awareness building and self-knowing, and recognized in a lot of exploration and doing inner work and being honest with myself that I didn’t want to keep doing tech sales.

A year before I exited out of tech I already told my boss, the VP of Sales, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore. I hate this.’ That was a really scary conversation to say, ‘I absolutely don’t want to be doing sales, even if I’m one of your top quota hitters and I’ve been here and helped build this team and our sales flows and processes. I’m out.’

I also realized that I was being severely underpaid. You know, leading towards me being a negotiation coach–a little foreshadowing that I had no idea would be there. 

At the time I was selling e-signature APIs, which as a non-technical person at the time, I thought ‘What the hell am I doing?’ It came down to me, being honest with myself, and saying, ‘If I died tomorrow doing this, what is this life?’ I’m pretty dramatic like that. Truly, I am. I go there. I care about my impact. I care about this precious blip of a life and the universe. At the time, I wasn’t tapped into that fully. 

When I started therapy a couple of years before I quit, I went for me to have somebody to talk to about this really difficult immigration process and then all these things opened up around inter-generational healing I needed and things around being a child of immigrants from the Philippines diaspora.

And then work. I hated it. I quit my job without another job, which my mama was not happy about. I didn’t have any plans. I didn’t know I would go the route of coaching, consulting, facilitating, and speaking, and I’m so delighted I’m here. I could have never known that I would be here today, even doing this with you.

What I did was I just created space for healing. I really believe that’s such an important thing to do when we don’t know what to do next. I really tried to think about what to do while I was still saving money before taking my own self-funded career sabbatical and I couldn’t see it until I quit. And through a series of events I’m here today.”

On how she started speaking

Nadia explained that once she decided to change courses, her exploration and self-reflection eventually led her to coaching which led her to speaking.

“I did a little Eat, Pray, Love after I quit and started my sabbatical. I went to Columbia with a home girl who was a marketer for coaches at the time. I had helped her essentially talk through a lot of relationship challenges and issues and she said I was using a lot of the language coaches use. 

I’ve always been a go-to person that got asked for relationship advice–dynamics, emotions, interpersonal communication–and that’s always been a part of me. I’ve always had empathy as a superpower. I’ve always had storytelling as a superpower. I’ve always had intuitive hits as something that come and go, and that I’ve received and been very open and expressive about emotions and feelings and learning. I was a self-growth lover through and through.

When I was helping my friend on the very last night we were in Columbia, she said, ‘You know, I help a lot of people who do things like this in my business and my work as a solopreneur marketer and you’ve got it. You’ve got the intuition. You’ve got the messaging naturally. Maybe you should look into coaching.’ She said that and it lit a fire and I’ve never stopped thinking about it since

So, I got a coach. I always recommend doing market research. I interviewed 10 different coaches and one coach said, ‘Have you ever even hired or spoken to or worked with a coach before?’ And I said, ‘No, but I’ve worked with mentors, therapists, consultants–all the things.’ And he said, ‘So that means you don’t even know what you’re asking for. Why don’t you hire some of these folks that I’ve trained and mentored, who are amazing.’

The person I chose rocked my world and in a way that therapy didn’t. It can be so different. Or, maybe it was that season of my life where that is what I needed. I decided to do training, and that healed me even further. That connected me to me–my voice, my intuition. 

During my certification process, I was crying resonant and dissonant tears thinking, ‘Am I gonna go back?’ I was reaching closer and closer to my year on my Sabbatical and I still wasn’t ready. So I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’m doing this. I guess I’m starting a business.’ There weren’t that many coaching things outside of contracting gigs and 9 to 5 so it just made sense. Also, I don’t want to work for somebody else. I want to do this myself.

Then, when I was building this business, speaking engagements were critical to my work. They made me feel alive, they helped me connect to people that I need to connect with and build community with. It just naturally flowed over time.”

On her first speaking engagement

Nadia also pointed out that even before she was actively pursuing speaking as part of her business, she was a speaker.

“I’ve always been a speaker. In tech rooms, in front of C-suite, pitching CEOs, VPs of Engineering, etc. 

Even before that, when I was a kid, I used to write poetry and I used to do open mics and slam poetry (mainly love poems to try to get that guy to notice me). I’m not a singer. I’m not musically talented. But, that was my way of explaining something. 

I couldn’t help but notice–even as a 12 year old, 15 year old, 18 year old–that I had the power to get the attention of and make an impact on the masses. I am a romantic at heart. Trust, love and integrity or my biggest values. 

[For] my first speaking engagement, I was in a panel. It was other coaches who invited me to speak at General Assembly, which I started speaking at pretty regularly for 2 to 3 year.

This was a panel and I think it was a bagel and breakfast Women in Tech panel. I can’t remember the questions. I just remember being so excited that someone even bothered to invite me at that point. And, I remember being so nervous that I had to clear out the day before, the day of, and the day after the event because I energetically was like, ‘Is this going to be okay? Am I really doing this?’

I remember so many people coming up to me and connecting, and then leads started flowing in and just realizing it was actually really effective and really important. 

Someone in the audience came up to me and said, ‘I would follow you wherever.’ And, she’s still a connection and has promoted a lot of my stuff and has sent me referrals years later.

It ignited something in me that said, ‘I really like this. This is my jam. This is really fun. I’m good at this. I should do this more.’”

On how she prepares before speaking

When talking about how to prepare for a talk, Nadia emphasized self-care to combat any negative thoughts.

“In my work as a leadership and negotiation coach, we care a lot about mindset. I’m a mindset coach at heart. I understand very well my inner hating voices, my self-sabotaging thoughts, the things that make me nervous. There will always be this voice that says, ‘Who do you think you are?’ This voice that says, ‘You’re gonna mess up.’

The speaking engagements that get me really nervous are conferences, summits, and when I do leadership and management training with majority power leaders who are oftentimes not bipoc women and fems. I can feel the power dynamic impact me so deeply. And, I know it’s old work trauma, I know it’s intergenerational trauma and traditional hierarchy trauma pops up. And I have to do a lot of work.

Know yourself. Be honest with yourself about what the nerves are. Am I nervous about bumbling? Am I nervous about forgetting my lines?

For me, I get nervous about what people will think of me. Will I honor the people that I represent? All my clients, my community, even my ancestors. I care about stuff like that so when I talk, I bring more than myself and it’s a lot. It can feel like a lot of pressure, especially when I enter spaces to support majority power leaders to create more equitable and inclusive and safe and thriving spaces for folks like me. I want to do right by us.”

This applies not just to speaking engagements, but when you’re advocating for yourself, negotiating for yourself, asking for that next level, bigger role, etc, this is all relevant. When you have to hype yourself up, you gotta take care of yourself before, during and after. 

I have pre rituals where I light a beautiful candle or do a little smudging, open things. I do deep breathing. I gotta do the nervous bio breaks if I gotta do it. And I pull a card. I always bring an ancestor with me if it’s a virtual event, just right next to me. I need these grounding exercises. 

If I’m extra nervous or get extra in my head post-event, I have to get energy out. I’ll either lie on my back and just breathe and say, “You did it. Celebrate yourself.’ Or, sometimes I do a quick bike ride for 10 min after an event if I have access to that. 

I just let it loose and let the energy flow out of me so I don’t make up stories about myself that might not be true.

Know yourself. Know your reasons why. Shift away from any voices that tell you that you can’t do this or shouldn’t be doing this. Don’t listen to that garbage and really do the damn thing.”

On how she calms her nerves

Nadia discussed how she views herself as a guide, as someone conveying a message, and how that eases some of the pressure of speaking.

“I feel my defense mechanisms popping up and saying, ‘Oh, I have to convince them. I have to do this.’ But really I have to set that voice aside and say, ‘I’m here as a guide. I’m here with a message and it is not up to me to convince anybody. I’m here to share this impact that I know I have and this wisdom and this voice that knows how to say it in this unique way. Only I have that and I own that.

“I used to think–especially for majority power leader talks where I’m teaching them how to create psychologically safe work environments for bipoc women and marginalized people–I used to think it was a win or lose thing. I truly showed up and felt it in my body.

The biggest way for me to take the pressure off was to say, ‘You are a guide right now, that’s it. You’re a conduit, you’re a vessel, whatever you wanna call it.’ 

Whatever their reactions are, it is not about me. How I’m reacting now is about me and I need to self-manage that. I need to regulate my nervous system, take a step back, breathe, and say ‘You’re here to get this message across.’”

On how she started to get paid to speak

After her first engagement, Nadia said she focused on building her experience and looked for compensation other than money. 

“After that panel, I hosted workshops on my own. I sought out different little organizations, community events, and retreats with diverse women and asked, ‘Hey, can I join this? Can I offer up [this workshop]? You don’t have to pay me, I just want to test out this material.’

Being a negotiation coach, I also asked for other things like. I highly recommend this–Will you give me a quotable? Will you give me a testimonial in exchange? Can I pitch my coaching services? Will I be able to network afterwards and pass out a free opt-in list? [I would] share my freebies and resources that I knew would be meaningful to the attendees and useful where I could also collect things for my newsletter.”

Nadia talked about how, as her business grew, it became clear that she needed to build out her fees structure.

“For myself, I really wanted to connect and build community and find people so I was down to do any type of speaking for a very long time. Anybody who reached out to me that seemed legit enough, I said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, yes, let me get that.’

Then, eventually, people started reaching out for paid work. And I started saying, ‘Okay, let’s go. Let’s do this.’

We started charging and claiming rates and formalizing our rate 3 years ago. Inquiries started coming through our website from really big companies and we were like, ‘Oh, we should make a rate sheet.’ Now, we have a full on funnel and slide deck, capabilities deck, pitch deck, a whole section for speaking workshops and training.

We can make 10x, 100x the impact this way with larger audiences that really are there to learn and integrate the learnings that we share into their daily lives.”

At this point in her career, Nadia says she still does a few unpaid speaking engagements but for different reasons.

“Even if you speak for free, it’s all good. You just want to know there is going to be an equal energy exchange. That’s how I teach negotiations.

It’s not even just the resume, right? I wanted to know, ‘Can I do this? Am I good at this? Does this exercise land?’

I did a talk for 4 people, I did it for 10 people. Whoa, I’m about to do this for 70 people, live, in-person, in real life. How many people can I really hold? That is always very exciting to me. I just want to know how many people can actually go through this speaking event and absorb things and actually feel like they’re taking away something special.

That is something that I’m a little bit addicted to, that energy of making an impact. I don’t have as much time to do free events, but I still will do 1 or 2 a quarter if somebody reaches out.

Recently, a student ay USC reached out, and she’s like, ‘I’m gonna a grad student. I don’t have money, but this is for my project. Can you be on this panel for a woman of color navigating barriers and challenges in corporate America?’ And I said, ‘Of course. I’m gonna do it. Let’s go.’ I’m happy to be a part of that and there’s no energy exchange, necessarily. There’s nothing other than I felt like it.”

On addressing “tricky subjects”

Nadia addressed how she approaches talks on sensitive subjects. Her advice was to know your non-negotiables and make sure you communicate.

“I know that companies shy away from talking about white supremacy and the impact of that, for instance, or the colonial, imperialist, patriarchy, etc. They might want to water that down for the comfort of majority power. That happens all the time and you get to call it. 

You get to say, ‘Hey, I’m not coming in here and saying you’re a racist, you’re a sexist, you’re a bully. I’m not doing that. I’m here to teach something that is critical for the liberation, the safety, the wellness, and the thriving state of your entire team. If you can get down with that, then we have a lot of work to do right. Sometimes, depending on the audience, it’s ok if we need to tweak it. But, at the end of the day, this is what we’re not allowing. This is the outcome that we are moving towards. Can we agree with that?’

It’s a bit of a negotiation. You go in there and you get to decide. I know facilitators and speakers who say, ‘Nope, that’s a hard line. I’ve gotta say the language that I need to say. And I know some incredible, impactful facilitators who say ‘I’m going to get my message across no matter the framing.

Know what your non-negotiables are, what you’re willing to do, what you’re not willing to do. I’ve had to ask partners, corporate partners, especially, ‘This is what I’m going to say–I need to make sure you’re going to back me up. I need to make sure that you will set expectations even before I enter the room.’

Always know that you should be setting community agreements upfront before any talk: ‘This is what we’re doing–curiosity over judgment. Recognize impact over intent. And expect non-closure in a lot of these things.’

These are really tricky subjects that nobody is going to become experts in through one single talk. What we want is for people to have more questions, to have more desire to learn, to seek more content around this, and to actually take away an action.”

On her advice for new speakers

When asked how she would recommend securing your first speaking engagement, Nadia emphasized starting to show people what you want to do.

“Put it everywhere. Say, ‘I am a speaker.’ Put it in your Linkedin headline. Put it in your Linkedin Summary. Put it on your Instagram and Twitter–wherever you are. Do it and start showing it. 

Maybe you record videos of yourself and say, ‘This is my talk on X, Y, and Z.’ Maybe you do Lives. Maybe you do podcasts. But, really promote and say, ‘I’m a speaker and here is what my passions and expertise are about.’

Highlight your expertise, no matter what and just start telling people tell everybody that’s your dream. Tell everybody that’s what you want to do. Make sure you say, ‘By the way, keep me in mind for these types of speaking events.’

Write posts about it, even if you might not already be doing it–‘This is what I speak on.This is what I do.’ Because you do on a regular basis, I’m sure. The difference is the container. Are you on a stage or not? Are you in an intimate conversation that’s being recorded or not?

If you want to get paid already, gather your rates. Put a range of things that you want–your panel rates, your workshop rates, your fireside chat rates, and anything else that you want to do. Have it ready. You don’t need a website. You don’t need anything but a PDF that you could share.

We always say this, especially when it comes to negotiations and sales and business: Stay ready, so you ain’t gotta get ready.”

Nadia also said that the most important thing when you’re beginning as a speaker is to know yourself and trust your own voice.

Do it your way. There’s no other way to do it but yours.”

“You can definitely gather inspiration from other people and learn best practices from other people, but put your own stank on it. You have a unique voice and trust that it’s important, and nobody can say it like you can.”

For more of Nadia’s thoughts on speaking about your passions, showing up in different mediums, and developing talks, watch the full recording below.

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