Our Workit Health team cheerily sips diet cokes at a business competition cocktail hour, awaiting the final round. We’ve made the cut, and we’re a bit giddy over the sense of validation. As I look around, I chuckle at the idea that we could ever get lost in the hype. Our diverse team sticks out like a motley crew in this sea of suits and start-up bros.

But it doesn’t matter that we fit in here. We didn’t create Workit to win over the start-up scene or prizes. We created Workit to help our people: the lost and the living, our members. They are always our number one priority, our north star lighting the path. And living up to our promise to meet them where they are makes having a diverse team an essential, not just an asset. Tech informs the precise personalization of our programs, but heart informs their personal resonance. By heart I’m talking about a deeply empathic perspective.

Back to the conference: we’re feeling good, sipping mocktails at the cocktail hour in bright colors and bright spirits. We probably underestimated how out of place we were. Talking without shame about addiction, led by two female founders.

“Ohhh look, the power puff girls,” a man who walks by comments.

“Bet you’re trouble back home”, says another man with a wink not worth trying to interpret.

Comparisons to cartoon characters and awkward insinuations, whatever. We’ve been deflecting unsolicited commentary on our appearance since we were born female. Now we have thick skin. We rise, we work, we rise, we work, day by day, heads high, dreams higher.

The founder of one of the other finalist companies walks by and addresses Lisa and Robin:

“Is it true you are all ex-drug addicts? Are you serious?” He doesn’t mean it nicely. He is smirking.

For a minute, the heart, the breath is swept out of me in despair, that distinct despair over someone insidiously wielding privilege in a way that leaves no good recourse: if you respond you’re dramatic and if you don’t you should have said something.

So this haughty man (founder of a “wellness” app!) just saw our presentation in which we reference our own stories, and the friends and family we have lost. Why is he being so aggressively cruel? Oh right, to win a business competition. That’s all the motivation it takes to mock someone’s trip to hell and back and to trivialize their triumph over it. It’s a tiny slice of the sickening shaming and stigma faced everyday by people who are “ex-addicts,” people dealing with addictions, or better yet, whatever they choose to call themselves.

My mind flashes to all the hours we’ve spent at Workit deliberating over the language we use when talking about addiction. We’re painstaking, obsessive even, about the words we use in our program, in our brand, in our daily conversations.

Why? Because we deeply respect people’s ownership over their own stories and identities, and we recognize that language has the power to honor or hinder that autonomy. Because slapping labels on others is a violation of their right to define themselves and their experiences. Because words matter, and letting people choose their own matters even more.

We’ll make mistakes along the way, but know that we will always come out of a place of respect for you and your story, wherever and whoever you are.

Fortunately, Lisa and Robin are made of some sort of invisible steel. They shrugged it off. They kept going. Everyone else followed suit. We fall back into their rhythm of resiliency, familiar by now; rise, we work, we rise, we work, day by day, heads high, dreams higher.

Originally published at medium.com