ZP Better Together provided this video interpreting this article in American Sign Language
“No and can’t are simply not in my vocabulary,” states Sherri Turpin, CEO of ZP Better Together. Having spent most of her career as a leader in the technology sector, she now leads communications solution provider, ZP Better Together, which is committed to providing the highest quality and most innovative communication services for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
With its more than 4,000 employees, ZP has four service areas —Video Relay Service (VRS), Video Remote Interpreting (VRI), Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), and On-Site Interpreting — ZP Better Together is committed to providing hardware, software, and in-person solutions.
The organization’s dedication to the idea that “Every Conversation Matters” is powered by these four pillars of service. Its goal is to expand and build a bridge between two worlds – deaf and hearing -with cutting-edge, easily accessible communication solutions, giving the deaf and hard of hearing population the very same opportunities that the hearing community takes for granted every day, whether they’re at home, on the go, at school, or at work.
The influences that helped shape her career and leadership
Throughout her childhood, Sherri’s grandmother had a profound impact on her life, and she firmly believes that her grandmother’s influence helped shape her career and leadership.
“She was such a loving person, always giving to others, always paying it forward. I always wanted to emulate her example,” she says. “Without question, confidence and a strong belief in myself came very early in my career and it’s something I am always keenly aware of and grateful for, as I know not everyone has that. I credit this first to my grandmother who was always there for me, always encouraging me, and always believing in me. To this day she continues to shape my leadership and my career.”
Sherri also gives credit to her very first leader and CEO, Ron Scott, who opened the doors wide for her, fully supported and trusted in her, and gave her all the room in the world to flourish. “There’s no question that my success today, my successes throughout my career journey, can be largely credited to this strong belief in myself gifted to me by my grandmother and my very first boss Ron,” she remarks.
Creating a more inclusive world with integrity
While technology has always been a constant, Sherri’s career journey has never really been a straight line. Before joining ZP, she was an executive with Earthlink and XO Communications, and an executive in residence with the private investment firm Kinderhook Industries.
When she was first starting her career, Sherri never dreamed that she would be leading major DEI and social change initiatives, that she would serve a leadership role in the private investment industry, or that she would be leading advocacy campaigns fighting for the deaf community’s right to full and equal communications access.
“I wouldn’t change a single thing if I had to do it all over again, not a single twist or turn,” Sherri declares. “I have more than found my purpose.”
What truly inspired Sherri to take the CEO step with ZP is that the leadership challenge was so much deeper than anything she could have ever contemplated. She knew the opportunity was not simply to lead a technology business, but to potentially have a profound impact on the lives of deaf and hard of hearing individuals and help create a more inclusive world.
“That was a complete game changer for me and a journey I wanted to take. To this day, almost eight years later, it’s a responsibility that I take to heart each and every day,” she affirms. Sherri shares that at ZP, integrity is one of the key core values that bolsters the organization’s commitment to “Every Conversation Matters.”
“We cannot innovate, we cannot bring game-changing technologies to market and, more importantly, we cannot build a more inclusive world if we are not authentically upholding the truths of the deaf and hard of hearing community and what’s required of us to deliver on equal communications access,” she insists.
As CEO, Sherri is always reminding her employees that ZP must lead, that they must always strive to show the world the very best practices for diversity and accessibility, always walk the walk, and that they must always honor the truths of the deaf community, and what’s required to help create the most diverse and inclusive world that they possibly can. “Community first is our integrity bedrock,” she declares.
Navigating the roadblocks to creating real and meaningful change
Sherri notes that she has always viewed success as something without definitive beginnings or ends. “We always know when our organization is succeeding but as a leader, I have always been more focused on continual improvement.
Even at our most successful times, for me, the ultimate leadership question is: ‘how can we do better?’ not ‘are we succeeding?’,” she explains.
Sherri remarks that every leader faces roadblocks. “You cannot create real and meaningful change without navigating barriers and roadblocks. I have certainly had my share whether it be navigating the global pandemic the past several years as ZP CEO, or frankly, throughout my career, being a woman executive and trying to find my footing in the male dominated tech industry,” she clarifies.
However, some of the biggest roadblocks and top leadership challenges Sherri faces entail her current efforts to get the Federal Communications Commission to change decades-old policy, modernize the nation’s telecommunications system, and ensure that the deaf community has full and equal communications access, as the Americans with Disabilities Act promised more than 30 years ago.
Adding to that is the education required for the hearing world about the reality of the communication inequities the deaf community faces today. Sherri remarks that most hearing people have absolutely no idea what reality is like for this community, which is why ZP produced an educational “What If” video to help put hearing people in the shoes of deaf and hard of hearing people. “Please take a moment to watch it: http://bit.ly/WhatIfDeaf – it will change your perspective and understanding,” she says.
Sherri insists that ZP will always be innovating state-of-the-art technologies and solutions. As a leading provider of video relay and interpretation services, that is in their DNA. But, most importantly, her vision goes far beyond what they simply do as a company. Its vision is all about what ZP stands for: ensuring that deaf and hard of hearing individuals have the very same communications access that hearing people take for granted each and every day.
“While I am proud of the technologies and solutions our company continues to innovate, frankly, that is not difficult. What is difficult is changing mindsets and ensuring that the deaf community has full and equal communications access. The communication inequities today are still significant. It’s quite shocking, really, and it is past time that we close these inequity gaps,” Sherri asserts.
She insists that one of the most difficult but crucial tasks is to educate the hearing community, including policy and government leaders and her fellow CEOs. “We must change outdated thinking, old infrastructures, and hearing mindsets about the deaf community. This is what drives ZP’s vision and plan for the future and it is at the very heart of my leadership,” Sherri says.
Key to this is ZP’s ongoing work to get the FCC to step up and truly invest in the deaf community and help modernize the nation’s telecommunications for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
“There is not a single acceptable reason why a deaf person today cannot jump onto Zoom for an impromptu job interview or must have two phone numbers (one for texting and another for video calls) or cannot be located via E911 the same way a hearing person can,” Sherri declares.
This is the foundation of ZP’s ongoing advocacy campaign, “Total Access,” (please visit: www.totalaccess.org) which is designed to fully educate the public and ultimately help deliver true functional equivalence in communications for the deaf and hard of hearing community.
Public advocacy is just one of Sherri’s many responsibilities as CEO and ZP is very focused on its Total Access campaign and its work to try and get the FCC to step up and ensure full and equal communications access for the deaf community.
As part of this, she has made a “Community Investment” business proposal to the FCC very clearly outlining how this can be accomplished without any substantial increase in funding. Sherri often makes public appearances such as at SXSW and on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She has also been interviewed in national media, such as Forbes and The Hill, where she shares ZP’s important work and educates the public.
“More than 30 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, deaf people do not have the same communication access that hearing people take for granted every day. This has to change. It is past time.”
Earning recognition and awards for disability inclusion in the workplace
Sherri feels very fortunate to have been recognized several times throughout her career. Two more recent recognitions are especially meaningful to her. First, for the past three consecutive years, under her leadership and due to the commitment of their employee family, ZP earned recognition as a “Best Place to Work for Disability Inclusion” (2022, 2021 and 2020).
The organization also earned a top score of 100 percent on the Disability Equality Index (DEI), a joint initiative of leading nonprofit organizations, the American Association of People with Disabilities and Disability: IN. The DEI is considered one of the world’s most comprehensive benchmarking tools for disability inclusion in the workplace.
“While we will always have more work to do when it comes to DEI, I am incredibly proud of our company having earned these recognitions three years in a row,” Sherri affirms.
Having been recently nominated for the “2022 Best CEOs” award by the Austin Business Journal, Sherri feels that receiving this honor, along with other selected Central Texas leaders for their track record of innovation and outstanding performance in business, philanthropy, and community services is living proof of ZP’s success.
“I am very proud to be recognized by the leading business publication in our home market. Also, I am honored to have been recognized and featured in many top media outlets who have reported on our Total Access campaign and the critically important work we are doing to modernize the nation’s telecommunications system and deliver on the true functional equivalence the ADA promised many decades ago. This includes: The Hill, Forbes, Vanity Fair, Austin Business Journal, Authority Magazine’s Female Disruptors Series, and Thrive Global,” says Sherri.
Motivation is super-critical when you’re doing transformative and disruptive work
Sherri notes that while every day can be very different for her as CEO, ultimately, she’s involved in every aspect of the organization, so she has full ownership and responsibility for the entire business.
“I’m not much of a believer in balance. Life and career are hardly ever 50/50, even-keeled environments. For me, striving for balance is usually an elusive goal and not one that typically serves a leader or the organization best,” she insists. Sherri knows that keeping her team motivated is extremely critical, as the work they are doing right now is quite transformative and disruptive and can quickly drain the motivation tank.
“We are essentially trying to educate the hearing public about something they know little to nothing about, while at the same exact time also trying to change decades-old infrastructure within our industry. This can seem so monumental and weeks and months, even years, can go by without any substantial progress or return on your efforts. So yes, motivation is super critical,” she notes.
There are two key methods that Sherri uses to keep her employees motivated. The first one is to always try to instill in her employees the importance of having and maintaining a positive attitude, most especially in the face of change and unchartered waters. “I firmly believe in the power of a positive attitude to stretch your capacity for seeing what is possible versus what cannot be done. And I always try to set this by example,” she explains.
Her second way is to stay in near constant communication with her employees about their transformational work, continually reminding them of the “why” of their work and the gross inequities that still exist for deaf and hard of hearing individuals today. “We can never forget the ‘why’ of our work and this, I believe, is the best motivator there is,” Sherri maintains.
Mentorship is the secret sauce for women in leadership
Sherri learned very early on, especially as a woman in technology, that to drive true transformation in our world, the words “no” and “can’t” have no good place in a leader’s vocabulary.
“Tenacious is the one word I would use to describe myself, and I believe most of my employees, or anyone who knows me, would not disagree with that! I have also learned that having a positive attitude is a critical leadership ingredient, as it is often the exact thing that can fuel and stretch your capacity for what is possible and what can be accomplished, right in the face of your biggest challenges,” she shares.
Also critical for all leaders, says Sherri, is mentorship. “I have been incredibly fortunate to have great mentors throughout my career – both women and men – who all have made a positive difference in my leadership. My grandmother is chief among them, as is Ron Scott, who was my CEO for the majority of my career.”
Sherri recalls that, as a mentor, Ron saw something in her that no one else saw, and he gave her the opportunity to flourish and grow. Sherri also mentions Peggy Wiseman, who was her operations partner and an invaluable mentor.
“These are only a few of the many people who have helped shape my career and have helped make me the leader I am today,” she explains. “For the next generation, I wholeheartedly encourage them to seek out mentors at all stages of their careers. I say, all the time, that mentorship is truly the secret sauce. I would also encourage the next generation to be very intentional about who they choose as their mentors.”
Sherri’s advice to aspiring women leaders is: Be bold. Seek men and women who will not only listen but who will challenge you; who will challenge your own career and leadership status quo; who will, more than anything, get you out of your comfort zone and move you to your transformational zone; and then hold you accountable to staying there, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. This is where exponential growth happens, this is the magic of mentorship.
“Purpose-driven leadership is really everything. It requires bold leadership. You must be willing to disrupt, step up, to shed the status quo, no matter the consequences. It is the toughest kind of leadership there is and at the same time the most effective.”
Bold change, transformative leadership must start with each of us
At the very heart of all transformative leadership, especially for women, says Sherri, is an unwavering belief in yourself.
“While progress is being made for women in the workplace and the C-suite, still, today, it is never easy to be a woman leader and I have had my share of challenges throughout my career. I am still way too often the only woman CEO in the room,” she observes. “What I often tell future women leaders is how critically important it is to affirm your own value and potential, to remain confident, despite the barriers and biases, or how tough it may seem. I am in no way denying the realities of today when it comes to gender bias and ongoing discrimination, but I always say: change must start with each of us.”
“Once we start unabashedly affirming our own potential and value, we can start taking more control over our own destiny, and we can then help start changing the paradigm for ourselves and others. It is not easy, but this is what makes us far more confident leaders. This is how we start showing up as our best selves.”