Don’t hide your superpower

Employee storytelling at Adobe is a powerful way to build empathy and inclusion. When employees share their life experiences in an honest and vulnerable way, other employees gain a greater appreciation and empathy for people different from them. This year, we will again showcase compelling and fascinating stories from our diverse employees at our annual Adobe For All internal event in September. In the lead-up, we are highlighting last year’s storytellers who inspired many across the company.

Heather Combs describes herself as a branding gladiator by day and musician by night — who also happens to be gay. The confidence she exudes now, however, is not something that came naturally at first, and Heather’s story is not one of coming out, but rather one of becoming.

Growing up in a working-class family in the South, Heather recognized at a young age the traditional roles people were expected to fit into. She could not conform to these roles and expectations of how she should look and behave, often negotiating with her mother about wearing skirts and pink. She preferred to tear up the streets on her bicycle over playing fairy princess, and questioned why her chores centered on keeping house while her brothers’ chores did not.

“Rules were a way of life,” she said. “And I did not exactly like to color inside the lines.”

In her teenage years, those expectations began to stick to her and tie her up in a way she likens to being covered in Post-it notes and Scotch tape, an “arsenal of reminders” of what the world expected her to be and not to be.

“I could not wait to get as far away from my youth, my town, those rules as fast as possible,” she recalled.

Real, raw, loud

After Heather graduated high school, her parents urged her to pursue a college education in a “sensible” subject. Heather, however, had bigger ideas and yearned to explore the world beyond where she grew up. So she set off for Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she started a band and made an astonishing discovery: “When I played music, I was not where I came from. I could show emotion, be real, raw, loud,” she explained. “I could be me.”

She eventually moved to San Francisco after college, piling into a small apartment with her bandmates and working a job in marketing during the week while living as a rock star at night and on the weekend. To her surprise, she found big success both at work and as a musician, and actually fell in love with her job.

“I was winning everywhere!” she said.

But there was a problem. She realized she had been living as two separate people. Rock star Heather let it all go on Friday night, toured with big-name musicians, and lived as herself unapologetically. In contrast, Work Heather was closed, curated, and predictable.

“There were no pictures on my desk, no stories to be shared,” she said. “That shame told the story that who I authentically was is nowhere near what they wanted or needed to me be.”

Or so she thought.

Show your superpower

One question, asked by her manager at the time, changed everything: “Why are you depriving us of who you are now?” And in that moment, Heather decided to take the leap to show her authentic self and tell her manager about her life.

“All the things I feared would happen actually didn’t happen,” she remembered. “I did not, in fact, in that moment spontaneously combust. My manager did not say at the moment, ‘You’re fired.’ And pigs did not fly. That conversation, for what felt like the first time, allowed me to feel acknowledgement for the entirety of who I was.”

Heather realized that separating out the authentic parts of herself was actually not helping her or anybody else, and she began to allow her full self to shine through.

“It only took away from my own power and ability to experience every ounce of what this life had to offer me — but even more, what I had to offer it,” she said. “Your genuine, authentic self is your superpower. It is who you were made to become before this world told you who to be. And when we fully embrace our whole selves, we can do the same thing for others in this life. That is what matters.”

Heather’s message to others who might be going through the same experience is simple: “Whatever that path you’re on is, be patient and gentle with yourself,” she advised. “You do need not be ashamed of who you are, because shame requires you to buy into the belief that you are alone. You’re not alone.”