Kristina Villarini: Reforming a Case for Equality

Kristina Villarini | Digital Director | Lambda Legal | Business Magazine | CIOLook
Kristina Villarini | Digital Director | Lambda Legal | Business Magazine | CIOLook

Our civil rights are the bindings that allow us to have political and social freedoms. When they function correctly, they allow an individual to exist while being free from discrimination. How do we obtain those rights, and are such rights practiced genuinely free from any discrimination? Many communities continue to fight for their civil rights and societal recognition.

Two such well-known communities are LGBTQ+ people and everyone living with HIV. Society accepts change when a leader they support can portray its significance. However, what if the leader itself is a part of such a community? Imagine the impact it would create?

Meet Kristina Villarini, the first ever Digital Director of Lambda Legal in its 46th year of inception. She currently sits as the only queer woman of color driving messaging for the oldest and largest LGBTQ legal advocacy organization in the country. As the first dedicated person at the helm of Lambda Legal’s multi-channel digital efforts, Kristina has accomplished many groundbreaking achievements in the last two years. By empowering Lambda Legal’s clients and attorneys using digital storytelling and building their brand as ambassadors of LGBTQ and HIV civil rights, Kristina’s digital team has improved the transparency and increased the nimbleness of an organization that has served these communities for nearly half a century.

Below is her story:

Her first job with a bit of responsibility for others was a finance role in her early 20s. She was processing applications for high-net-worth clients for a famous insurance company in New York. She was pretty good at the execution of the role, but she lacked the leadership part because she had no examples of how to do it well. She was young, and she thought her job was to make people care about the work. She learned reasonably quickly that good managers and directors are working for their staff, not the other way around. People have a lot of reasons why they do the work they’re doing, and learning how to listen to her teams and colleagues, allowed her to grow. She quickly learned that if people are “underperforming” on your watch, one of three things is likely happening:

  • They don’t know how to do something,
  • They don’t know why to do something, or
  • They are not the person to do something.

So the beginning of her journey was about failing forward while moving through the many, many stages of a career as a journalist, web developer, and digital strategist. Ultimately, she understood that if you eliminate those three challenges for your staff, they respect you, follow you, and trust you to lead them.

At Lambda Legal, the mission is to make the world more equitable for LGBTQ+ people and everyone living with HIV. As a national nonprofit, the company’s offerings are their pro bono legal and public policy work, as well as the “hearts and mind” work on messaging for public education. Its audience varies from LGBTQ+ people and everyone living with HIV to partner organizations and allies. Her team distills complex legal casework into something you can talk about “around the kitchen table.” They segment those audiences based on interest areas and curate their content based on social media platforms across a variety of distribution efforts. They are always looking for more opportunities to inform the public about why Lambda Legal matters more than ever before.

As one of the oldest national nonprofits doing this work, they have a legitimacy that affords them a bit of leverage. That is one of their competitive advantages. “My team doesn’t run the brand’s channels from a scarcity mentality. We know who we are and what we are trying to build and do every day. As Kanye West said about competing with himself,’ it is one on no one.’ ” However, Kristina is keenly aware that she is in the attention game. Every email, every text, every website, every tweet or Instagram post that you get that’s not from Lambda Legal, is taking you r attention away from the company.

Her vital traits to a successful career are EQ and grit, because “to be a cisgender or female-presenting person in any field is challenging enough.” So Kristina would say that thick skin and resolve that reminds you that you’re qualified to be in every room you’re in, is critical. A willingness to stick it out through the tough times, and the ability to read the rooms you’re in and remain steady at all times. It’s never fair, but it’s necessary.

The “what’s the ROI of digital” conversation was happening when she started on this path in the early 2000s. Kristina states that many people thought the digital business model was not sustainable. So, how do you build a career out of something people inherently believe is a fad? You prove everyone wrong. That is when data and analytics, cultural competence, and grit play out in the public square. For her, the proof of concept was raising a ton of money on email, social, and web. In any field, people start to believe you know what you’re doing when you execute your strategy well. Play your game, no one else’s.

Meritocracies can only work in a world where everyone has equal opportunity and access. “Unfortunately, this is not our world,” says Kristina. She knows that “work hard and you succeed” is not enough, and isn’t the whole story. There are other elements at play. Sometimes you need a little bit of luck, someone willing to take you under his/her/their wing, and your patience. Even then, you’re still going to have to work harder, faster, and be stronger than everyone else. Famed writer and Stoic Ryan Holiday said, “You don’t have to be the best; you just have to be harder to destroy.” Patience and kindness would go a long way to changing all of the tech space.

She thinks if you think you’re “coping with it,” you’ve already lost. She feels lucky to be a part of the conversations about how and when Lambda Legal shows up in the digital world, and that may be her job, but it’s also her life. So, she needs to be as informed as possible, in a way that feels organic to her and her audiences. She wants to know how people are communicating at all times and why. She enjoys testing the boundaries of what messaging works and what her personal audience/followers expect, also she enjoys being surprised and being wrong. She is not romantic about any of it.

She is looking forward to seeing how the conversations on data, privacy, and social play out. Those have implications on where people spend their time, and the market demands on businesses and brands on those platforms shift. Kristina’s team continues to invest in paid social and experiments with user acquisition, user generated content, and experiential marketing. She is curious about the rise of intent marketing. She is also watching how voice search impacts how people consume media. One of the projects she worked on last year was getting the company set up on Alexa/Amazon Pay for donations via Echo + Echo Dot, and she believes that’s a long game they are playing where the payout potential is high, and Lambda Legal was one of the first people there.

She sees herself continuing to build her digital infrastructure and surprising folks on what a nonprofit can do in the digital space.