Diversity Goes To Work Podcast

Diversity Goes To Work series artDiversity Goes to Work is a podcast centering on real, raw, and inherently human perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the world of work. Featuring guests from all walks of life, from internally acclaimed experts to everyday lay people, each episode seeks to do a deep dive into our common humanity in an effort to improve the quality and outcomes of our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.

Launched in 2021, Diversity Goes to Work is now in its second season, with 22 episodes dropping biweekly through June 2023. Be sure to follow and subscribe wherever you listen to your podcasts to be notified when new episodes release.

 Nick Jonsson
Nick JonssonEpisode 57: March 11, 2024
Executive Loneliness: A Mental Health Conversation

Nick Jonsson

Episode 57: March 11, 2024

Executive Loneliness: A Mental Health Conversation

The adage says, "It's lonely at the top." And in today's fast-paced world, a conversation around mental health and wellness seems more crucial than ever before—especially in the workplace. But when we peel back the layers of corporate suits and titles, we uncover a less talked about issue, which is executive loneliness. We talk a lot about climbing the corporate ladder but not as much about the silent struggle many face at the top, where there's pressure to perform, and that pressure meets the stark reality of isolation. Our guest today, Nick Jonsson, is here to speak to those realities. He's the author of the best-selling book "Executive Loneliness" and an advocate for mental health and wellness in the C-suite and beyond.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What led to the development of the book "Executive Loneliness"
  • How masculinity plays into the gendered implications and perceptions of mental health
  • What are underlying causes of loneliness for executive leaders
  • How to get men to talk, and take action, about their own mental health
  • The interconnectedness between mental health and physical health
  • What are some first steps for career leaders to re-ignite their personal passions
  • Why peer support systems are important to maintaining well-balanced mental health
  • How leaders can foster good mental health practices within their organizations
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hey, listeners, thanks for joining us today. Just a brief note that today's episode will discuss themes of mental health, including a brief description of suicide. If that's a triggering issue for you, we invite you to tune out this week and join us again for a future episode. It bears noting that if you or someone you love is struggling, remember there are options available to you. If you're located in the United States, simply dial nine eight eight to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. You know, there's this classic line that goes something like it's lonely at the top. And in today's fast-paced world, the conversation around mental health and wellness seems more crucial than ever before, especially in the workplace. But when we peel back the layers of corporate suits and titles, honestly, we uncover a less talked about issue, which is executive loneliness. We talk a lot about climbing the corporate ladder but not as much about the silent struggle many face at the top where there's pressure to perform. And that pressure meets the stark reality of isolation. Today, our guest, Nick Jonsson, is here to speak to those realities. He's the author of the best-selling book Executive Loneliness and an advocate for mental health and wellness in the C suite and beyond. Nick's going to dive into his own personal battle as well as talk about some evolving social norms, particularly around masculinity, which I'm excited about, and how those evolving social norms are shaping mental health discussions in the workplace. This isn't just a story about someone personally overcoming; this is a call to action. I think for all of us, for leaders to foster an environment where everyone, regardless of their background, feels supported, feels seen, feels valued, and as if they belong. So, Nick, my friend, it's a privilege to welcome you here. Thanks for joining us to talk about your work. Before we jump in, why don't you tell us a little bit more about your background and maybe what led to the development of this best-selling book that we're here to discuss?

Nick Jonsson

Yes, thank you so much for welcoming me, and welcome also to all the listeners. So, indeed, I was born in Sweden, educated in Australia, and then I spent the 20-plus last years in Asia. Working and working my way up the ladder, you could say. And perhaps along the way, I also came across that indeed it is lowly at the top, what happened in my shore, in very short. So I was a high achiever, an anxious overachiever. This started already at university because I failed at high school, and I had to go back to adult high school to finish my high school. I brought that with me into university got a taste for winning, topping classes, scholarships, getting awards, trophies. And then I brought that with me into the workplace, stepping on my colleagues' tools, making sure everything I did was to hit the targets, impressing the bosses, getting the promotions. Suddenly, I found myself as a managing director of a big company, sitting in an office with a big package. But I was very lonely. So that's a little bit of the backstory what have led me down this path.

Phil Wagner

I want to start at the beginning a little bit, which I think really goes back to gender if that works for you. One of the things I can really appreciate about your work is that you don't try to paint with a very broad brush here, and you've given some insight in your work about the gendered implications of mental health. And we know that even pre-COVID, there was this sort of silent epidemic, particularly among men, as it relates to mental health. Not that your work only explores men, but I'm wondering if we can wrestle a little bit with our social understanding of masculinity, how that's involved, and how that impacts the mental health discourse that tees up or sort of holds the work that you've written.

Nick Jonsson

Where I live in Asia, it's very much so still that it is. The men who are supposed to have the answer or have the power in the companies. If I'm just looking at the boards, for example, in Singapore and so on, it's only 10% women in senior position. So it's a man's world out here, and those are the roles you're in. And when you are then a managing director, like when I was managing 70 hospitals and clinics, the people are coming to you for the answers, and they would look at you with a blank face almost if you say I don't know. And that was something that I either was mentor and coached to be careful the conversations you have with your staff and so on. And I was even told to not be too close to the staff because also it could create jealousy. I remember my direct report telling me that if I buy a new mobile phone, don't put it on your desk; we don't want people to see that. And then, as an anxious man, already an overachiever, then adding that complexity of also keeping a distance and so on that suited me perfectly fine, adding also that I'm an introvert. So I led with a clear structure, hitting the goals, doing the things that I could, but not being close to the people. So that is a real issue. And what I did also then when I started research around this topic for my book is I wrote it. I interviewed men and women, but let's focus on the men here. And many had felt similar disconnections. Many have also isolated themselves and focused on the task at hand rather than in connecting with people. Rather than being a true leader, being that kind of coaching man that would then work with the teams, getting the buy-in from them, and so on, that was just not on my radar. It was nothing that was told to me, and that is what I've seen. Many men have led in the same way. We just never been trained, told, mentored how to lead in a more inclusive way, sadly.

Phil Wagner

So, is the mitigating measure to help avoid or address some of those mental health concerns? Is it a focus on relationship? I mean, you tee up the importance of team building, of connection, of relationship. Is it just that we experience that isolation at the top because we have fallen out of relationship or community with others?

Nick Jonsson

I believe it goes even deeper with that, that in many cases, we don't have a strong connection or self-belief, the connection in ourselves. That's where I say the loneliness start. So, at this point, when I was in my bigger roles before I left the corporate world, I could feel lonely in the crowd, but I could also feel lonely with my friends and my family because I didn't feel well myself. So, if you then put yourself in a workplace, you will feel even more isolated and lonely. So it starts already there. And then, at the level of being around other people, if you really don't have that feeling around yourself that you're doing what you should, then it's impossible to feel connected to others. These days, I know better. But it takes a lot of work, a lot of work. I had to work on myself to go back, make amends, and set everything, all my professional relationships also in the past, and clear them, clean them, so I have a clean past behind me now. Then, I can feel a connection with myself. I've forgiven myself. There's no guilt and shame about the baggage I've carried these days because I repaired all of this. Then I'm open, and then I'm ready for these kind of senior roles and positions. And then when you're closer to people, and you're feeling good about yourself, then it doesn't really matter if it's a man or a woman anymore.

Phil Wagner

I don't want to neglect your story in all of this, and I'm wondering if there's anything more that you want to unpack. I've been able to snag a copy of your book, and you're very forthcoming and candid about sort of the pressures that you face. I think you use the language as you moved towards meltdown. I think that's the rhetoric because it stuck with me. I'm wondering if you might share a little bit more of that story and what that did to propel you to write that work. Storytelling is such an important. It holds such an important role in DEI conversations. Do you mind sharing a little bit of yours?

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, sure. So, going back a couple of years, around 2015, I started really to feel extremely lonely. And I also started to question what was I doing. I'd worked so hard for these positions. I have everything. I'm supposed to be happy now. I'm not happy. That led me then to resigning from my job. But with that came a downturn even worse, and I also filed for divorce. I didn't really know who I was anymore, and I dropped my good habits. I changed my healthy diet to fast food and pizza. I traded my gym membership for a bar stool. And that was a downward spiral that isolated me even further. Then bad habits turned into addictions, and it wasn't too long before I found myself having an alcohol addiction, which I didn't admit at the time, but now, looking back at it, it's black and white. I was consuming too much alcohol and so on. Then, a couple of years later, I found myself at what I call my rock bottom. I wrote my will, my testament. I cleaned up my act. I wasn't suicidal, but I had no will to go further. And I thought, well, I don't think I can come back from this. I thought I was a lost case. So that's why I did that. And out of that, though, as I had surrendered, as I found myself there at the rock bottom, I managed to repatch my life and done it in a completely different way. And I'd done it through a deep dive inside myself. As I explained a little bit before, they're doing my immense and rebuilding my path. But doing it, being completely transparent, open with my feelings, working with sponsors, mentors, coaches. I now belong to confidential men's peer groups. And my line of business now is running peer groups, which are safe spaces. We also have women's group, men's group, we have mixed groups. For people to have their safe space to talk about their feelings, their pressure, and the challenges. All the things that I didn't have when I was going down is what we have now. So we should have this place where people can raise a hand, speak about what's on their mind, and we are supporting each other. So it doesn't go as deep and as bad as for me because it was a three-year spiral down for me, and we can stop that at a much earlier stage. So that's what I'm very passionate about now: to helping people, getting back on track. And by doing that, I'm also maintaining my own mental health and well-being around this.

Phil Wagner

How do we get men to talk about this? I mean, if you're just looking at your standard stereotypical model of masculinity, you think that sort of John Wayne masculinity to go into the literature a little bit here, right? That rugged rough and tumble you mentioned, I had to get honest with my feelings. I had to lean into that vulnerability. And it's sort of coded into the traditional masculine script that that's not something that we do. That reality exists on the same plane where we have to recognize two-thirds of suicide victims are male. I heard a statistic once, and I apologize that I don't know how correct it is, but it stuck with me that men are 25, 28, something like that, 28 more times likely to have a mental health condition like depression than they are to have prostate cancer. So, this is an epidemic. So this is clearly in men's best interest. How do we crack that ice? How do we actually get men to do what you did? Does it take that meltdown, that midlife crisis, that big lightning in the sky moment, or are there things that we can do in the workplace or in society to prompt that conversation? What do you think, Nick?

Nick Jonsson

Yes. What happened if we turn back to my story, then so 2018, I was getting better. I was on the right path. I found my safe spaces with coaches, mentors. I joined one of the beautiful twelve-step program where I trained and learned to be vulnerable for the first time in my life. And I call it the vulnerability muscle. It's like a muscle we can practice. The first day, I just introduced myself. The next day, I said a few words. For the first two months, I was mainly listening and being quite shocked, honestly, with all the people being so open and honest. And I heard men in the age 40, 50, even 60 who had lived beautiful lives, who lost it all and now rebuilt it so I could hear the stories, and therefore, I started to have the confidence of speaking up. One year into my own recovery, I lost a good male friend to suicide. And that was another game changer for me. That was the moment when I decided to share my story outside my closed circle. Until then, I shared my feelings and thoughts and my challenges inside my circle of safety. But when Simon, who's my friend, was died, I was in complete shock. He had just come back from Mount Everest. He climbed up to the base camp. He was the fittest of his life. He had a girlfriend he loved. He was just transitioning into a new career. I had just worked with him on a project, and I just couldn't believe he was gone. So that was the start of me writing a book about this. I called up his brother in the UK, and I asked for permission to write a book in memory of Simon. And he agreed. He said, shout it out loud. If we can just stop one suicide by this, I'm all in. So then I became relentless. I set up a fund for this, an awareness campaign. I also became a volunteer for the SOS Samaritans, a suicide prevention agency in Singapore, where I'm still working today to support the drive here. And therefore, the only thing I can say is to normalize the conversation; we need to remove the stigma in discussing suicide, and that is something that I'm doing. I ran a men's peer group last night. And we were eight on the call, and there were two of the men on that call who have suicidal thoughts right now. Everyone else on the call have shared that from time to time that they had them. So we talked about it just like we are talking about any other kind of feeling. So we normalize the conversation so that the people who are going through those feelings right now dare to say that I'm suicidal now, or yesterday, I had these thoughts again. They're coming back to me. And then we can share in the circle of the people who had those before, what they did to get out of it, and so on. So, I would say that's the first step here is to normalize the conversation. And that was what I started to do in 2019 when I did a video and it went viral on LinkedIn. People wrote me all over the world. I went within 24 hours, also on live TV, live radio. So here I am, talking about these conversations, which, before, I would have kept secret under the carpet, but that was the game changer for me. And with that, after that, I've never had those thoughts coming back to me. I'm glad I wrote my will, my testament and prepared those documents. They are there, but I haven't looked at them since.

Phil Wagner

You talked just a little bit ago as you teed up that story and rounded out that narrative arc about flexing the vulnerability muscle. And I think that's a great sort of mental model to think about some of your other experience. And I want to ask how that informs your approach. And what I'm talking about is your experience as a triathlon athlete and an Iron Man, how that works, that experience with health and wellness impacts now, how you coach, how you lead, how you structure conversations around overall health and wellness. Do you care to unpack that a little bit for us?

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, definitely. So, as I explained before, what happened in my journey I lost my fitness and my health, and I wanted to get it back. And I thought that because I have an addictive personality, I admitted that. And I said, let's get some healthy habits going here. And I went in deeply inside myself, also identifying my purpose and trying to find some fun in my life. And I found out that what I really love is to cycle. And I also like to run. But if we only run as we age normally, we get injured. So I need to add some other sport to it. And indeed, swimming is very light on the body. So I thought that was the perfect combination. But it's also a backstory to this is that men in my family, including my father, grandfather, they all had high cholesterol, they all had heart attacks. And I thought, well, I want to set myself on a path here where I don't have to go on medication for cholesterol and all these medications that I seen all my relatives on. So, I won't set up a holistic lifestyle where my life centers around sport and healthy diet. And as I started down that path, getting coaches, then in the triathlon world, and so on, I became obsessed and fanatic about it, reading everything about it, starting to travel to weekend triathlon camps, and so on. And now, fast forward a couple of years. I even changed my life. So, my back office, where I live these days, is inside a triathlon camp. I work out of there. So I have two training sessions a day in my group of pro athletes, world champions. My coach is a former Kuna world champion, top ten finisher. He done eight times in the top ten world championship in Kuna, Hawaii. So those are the people I surround myself with, and they mentor me, they coach me. And now I'm passing this on to other generations, but also men on the outside world. And I say we got to get play and fun back into our lives. We got to have a healthy foundation for our life because everything else we discussed today becomes impossible if we are not in our best state. And for me, that means eating well and exercising.

Phil Wagner

I'm 100% with you. And this is one of the things I can really appreciate about your work is: you don't just again, give us these big ideas. You tell us exactly how to walk them out. And a lot of students of ours will listen to this podcast. And if you are one of our students, I'll always talk about two things. Number one is my own mid-career burnout, and number two is my undying love for group fitness. And I'm with you. It really saved my life in many ways. It built that community. It gave me an outlet that wasn't work. You talk about finding your purpose in the book, but if you are in that mid-career cycle and you're a workaholic like I was, then all you can see in terms of purpose is, what are my work-related purposes? And what I can really appreciate is that you tell us, no, cut through that. Yes, find a plan b. Think about how you can serve, not just in work, but beyond that, and then find a hobby. Right. Maybe it's cycle. Maybe it's swim, maybe it's fitness, maybe it's something wildly different altogether. And so I appreciate the toolkit that you craft here, too. What do you recommend for men or women or anyone who are stuck in that mid-career glut and can't seem to even think about fun outside of work like? What do they do as a first step to start to find those passions and think about themselves beyond their work capacity?

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, it's a great question, Phil, because I think too many times we just follow what we believe the society expect of them. We go to the work, and then we go to yoga class during working hours because our boss have put that on, and we're supposed to show up. So we keep doing the things that others are saying: you should do this. And we never take a time to pause to find out what our true love is. And as I went through a deep dive into myself to find out about my purpose, I went back into looking at what was it that I loved as a child. What was my fun and joy? And I only have to look back into my parent's photo album of me as a young child. I was always on a cycle. It's hard to find me on something where I wasn't cycling. From the moment I could walk, I was on a bicycle that's how I got around my neighborhood. So for me, as I came on a bicycle again, I got some joy back into my life. What was the other things I like? Well, as a small child, I remember my first profession. I wanted to be a farmer. I love to walk out in the forest and being around animals and so on. So then, combining cycling by getting out in the nature, then I become a child again. So now I make sure that I do this multiple times a day. So I would encourage everyone, when they're working on this personal discovery, to ask yourself, what was the times in your life as a child when you really enjoyed, and you felt fulfilled and time was floating and you were in the moment? Those are the things we should look at, not ticking boxes to join a yoga class. If that's not really where your purpose or passion is, when we do that, then many things unfold. I basically feel that when I'm working in the office, on my desk, then I'm sort of the manager, I'm the operator, I'm executing my business. But when I'm out there on my bicycle, in the forest or with other groups, socializing with others, out exercising, and so on, then I'm the CEO. I'm the strategic person. When I'm coming back from those exercises, that's when I have the big ideas. So, for anyone who's aspired to be an entrepreneur or business owner, then you have the perfect combination, especially as you scale up your business. You might not be able to afford to have a lot of team members, but now you can be the operator, the manager, you can be the leader, you can have that mindset as long as you incorporate your purpose and something which has to do with exercise as well.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Again, I really appreciate that you first focus on what we do outside of the workplace, sort of settling up with ourselves, taking stock of who we are and where we are and what's going on, not sitting with secrets or in silence. But then, in the book, you also do take us back in the workplace because work is often an important part of our identity, our lives, our livelihoods. And you give some suggestions there as well. One of those is developing effective peer networks. Talk about the role of networking and creating a support system for mental health, wellness, resilience, and success in the workplace.

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, I'm a big believer that we need to have these safe spaces, and we need to be surrounded by these safe spaces, and it's not enough to have one. I speak about the personal and the professional, safe spaces. On the personal side, we build up perhaps some coaches, some mentors. Outside the workplace we have perhaps a men's group, a woman's group. We have perhaps a mastermind group. I have also my triathlon group, my running, my swimming. These are my pockets, and I try to find some people in each of these where I feel I can be safe. I can have open conversations, honest conversations and so on. I also have my twelve-step recovery group on that side, which I'm now giving back to. When it comes then to the professional safe spaces, it can be confidential. Peer groups, that's what I'm running on the professional side. Now, for executives, like a HR leaders group, we have the sustainability peer group. So, related to your profession, you can join peer groups which are with people which are like-minded in your passion. So you can talk about your passion, your challenges, and where your work is going in that direction. And inside at the company, it's great if you also can have some safe conversation, but as we all know, it can be quite difficult. Inside organization. People are worried about being exposed, being backstabbed if you share too much. So, we also need to be very careful with what we share inside organization. However, I'm a big believer that this needs to start at the top. Inside a company, it's very difficult to get a young, new, fresh graduate to join your company, to open up, and be vulnerable in the workplace. If you have a CEO or a leader at the top or a manager who's not open, and honest, and vulnerable, we need to be open about this. And I can share one story here: what I do when someone is applying for a job in my organization. The pre-reading we send them is two pages from my book. When I hit my work got done. That's the darkest moment of my life. We send that for them to know me a little bit. What happens is two things. Either they cancel the interview, they just feel this is too much for me, or they come into the interview, but then they know the darkest moment of my life. Then, in the interview, they feel quite safe, to be honest and open. In fact, I interviewed one man for a job with us, and he shared with in five minutes of the interview, he showed a score on his shin. He said that he had two suicide attempts behind him. We had an open dialogue, an open job interview. He's hired, he's working for us still today, and nothing else off the shot. We can have open conversations and so on. He's never scared to raise his hand or come into my office and tell me when he's facing some issues because that was cleared within the first five minutes of the job interview. Now, I'm not suggesting that everyone do that, but I think it sets the scene for an open and honest conversations. And I'm passing here the responsibility to all leaders to ensure that that happens. Then the workplace is also a safe space and where we can talk about all issues.

Phil Wagner

So you're teeing up our next question perfectly. Let's talk to those leaders who are listening to say, look, this is great. Maybe this doesn't quote unquote, apply to me. I'm not that one approaching mid-career burnout. I'm not that one facing a mental health crisis, though I think post-pandemic, if we all step back and do an honest reflection, we're grappling with some stuff, particularly now as the world seems to be on fire and spinning faster than ever before. But I digress. What do you say to those leaders about what to do, not maybe for themselves, but for their people? You gave some great examples here. I'm thinking ERGs, right? Or spaces where employees of similar background can congregate, can build community, can build a support system. Are there other things that can be put into place for the people that we might lead to ensure that not just ourselves but those we lead are healthy and well in all areas of their life?

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, thank you for the question, Phil. And you answered it partly yourself. Indeed, as a leader, if everything is great and you're open, you have close relationships with everyone, and perhaps this isn't for you, then you never know what lies around the corner. Life events may happen, and you might find yourself around the corner losing it. And therefore you want to be proactive about this. You want to build up your safe spaces and practice your vulnerability muscle in the good times so you're ready for the bad times. Don't wait for the moment when you lost your health or something because then it might just hit you overnight. Life happens, and it's a roller coaster. We lose family members, we lose friends, companies merge and acquired. You might find yourself today in a great paid role, feeling safe, but that doesn't mean that your role will exist in one year from now. So therefore, be there now because you might be the one who need help in a year from now. But in addition to that, indeed, if you don't do this for yourself, do it for your family or your colleagues and build up this culture. Because the people who lose colleagues due to suicide, they will, perhaps, for the rest of their life question, why didn't I? Why didn't I create these safe spaces? Why wasn't I there or create a safe culture so that we shouldn't have this happening in my company? But then it's too late. You already perhaps lost a life in your family, in your workplace. So, therefore, indeed, I would encourage you to practice your vulnerability muscle if you're a leader. And then also encourage everyone to have their safe places. And you also mentioned community. And it's so important in this world where we communicate perhaps too much virtually, but we also do those communications around physical meetings and gatherings. That's why, again, I love swimming, cycling, running. While we have community groups where we share photos before and after and training sessions in our online groups. And it's good memories to share them and stories. But then we do meet in person. We need to have these physical meetings. And I'm a big believer that we need to force ourselves almost to spend two, 3 hours a day in some form of community. I do that every day. It can be 1 hour of charity or social service a day, 1 hour perhaps with a swim academy in the morning. And then maybe I join a run squad at night. So I spend two, 3 hours every day making sure that I'm out there in the community doing things for myself and others. Then I get that real physical connection. I get my exercise, and I have the good feeling of social service. Without that, I wouldn't feel that I'm on the right track anymore.

Phil Wagner

That's super helpful. I have really one more lingering question. And it just kind of keeps the main thing. The main thing. I think your book is written to everyone. But ultimately, I see it as an invitation to the person who's really struggling finds themselves in the position that you found yourself in all those years ago. And maybe they have no idea where to get started. I think this is an opportunity to speak to people who I hope will go out and buy the book, and we'll talk about where to snag that in just a bit. But if they don't, what do you say to that person? Where did they begin? When it feels hopeless, when what they're facing seems insurmountable, they're burnt out. They have no idea how they're going to move forward. What do you say to them, Nick?

Nick Jonsson

Well, the first step of my book is taking stock. So that's the first thing. And why that in the purpose of the book is taking really a deep taking stock, almost like a stock account or an audit of a shop that you do that on yourself. But what that means on a day-to-day basis? It means having a pen and paper on your desk and next to your bed also, which I do have. And it's about writing down your feelings. If you wake up in the morning, try to express your feelings yourself and write down what is it that you're feeling. And then next to that, just think about who can I discuss this with. Is there a mentor? A hotline? Is there a friend? Is there a colleague? Can I talk to my boss about this? And otherwise, there's so many anonymous support hotlines these days. I just mentioned before, I'm the volunteer for a suicide hotline. These exist all over the world, no matter what problem or issue it is. There's also the twelve-steps program for shopping, sex, alcohol, drugs, social media addictions. There's something for everything. And you can even on the search engines then and find the right place. There will be volunteers, people who've gone through similar feelings, who can have a conversation with you. It's anonymous. You're not getting exposed, so just take some action on that. So again, to summarize, write down whatever feeling it is and then try to think, who can I have this conversation with? And just take action on that. And if you get that practice into motion and do this on a day-to-day natural basis, then you will prevent a lot of pain and a lot of issues for yourself.

Phil Wagner

Fantastic advice. Thanks, Nick. So the final question I have you know our listeners, I imagine, are likely very engaged by this conversation and want to support you. How do they do that? Where do we find you? How do we follow your work? Where do we pick up a copy of executive loneliness? Tell our listeners where they can find and support you.

Nick Jonsson

Yeah, I'm quite active on LinkedIn, so they can look me up there. And my name is Nick Jonsson. It's Nick and Swedish spelling of Jonsson. J-O-N-S-S-O-N. Otherwise my book is a bestseller on Amazon. It was a bestseller also in the US under men's health and mental health when it was launched. You can look it up there called executive loneliness. It's also on Audible as an audiobook.

Phil Wagner

Nick, thanks for this great conversation today. Thank you for your candor, not just in the book but here as well for the important work that you do addressing a critical need. Thanks again. Great conversation.

Nick Jonsson

Thank you, Phil, for having these important conversations. And thanks to all the listeners as well.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

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Kamini WoodEpisode 56: February 26, 2024
Tossing Aside Self-Limiting Beliefs

Kamini Wood

Episode 56: February 26, 2024

Tossing Aside Self-Limiting Beliefs

Today, we're excited to welcome Kamini Wood. Kamini is a Certified Life Coach on a mission to empower high achievers. With over 20 years of experience and as a mother of high-achieving young adults, Kamini understands feeling overwhelmed by expectations. All of those realities we talk about but don't ever really talk about or explore deeply—bandwidth, burnout, imposter syndrome—Kamini's work focuses on those very aspects of our lived experiences. She helps high performers become confident in their leadership by overcoming anxiety, boosting their resilience, setting boundaries, and being unapologetically true to themselves. Kamini takes a direct and holistic approach to help transform those clients who are ready to invest time and effort.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What are limiting beliefs
  • How imposter syndrome is connected to limiting beliefs
  • Why people from underrepresented backgrounds might have more critical inner voices
  • How societal biases and discrimination reinforce limiting beliefs in marginalized populations
  • How to think about the nuance of being true to self as a marginalized population
  • What role privilege plays in developing a strong sense of self belief
  • How systems of oppression lead marginalized people to lack the permission to succeed
  • How to develop healthy self-confidence into younger generations
  • The best practices organizations can implement to address limiting beliefs
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. I'm excited to welcome to the podcast today, Kamini Wood. Kamini is a certified life coach on a mission to empower high achievers. With over 20 years of experience and as a mother of high-achieving young adults, Kamini understands feeling overwhelmed by expectations. All of those realities we talk about but don't ever really talk about or explore deeply. Bandwidth, burnout, imposter syndrome. Kamini's work focuses on those very aspects of our lived experience, and she helps high performers become confident in their leadership by overcoming anxiety, boosting their resilience, setting boundaries, and being unapologetically true to ourselves. Kamini takes a direct and holistic approach to help transform those clients that are ready to invest time and effort. Kamini, we're ready to do just that. Let's take some time. Let's invest some efforts. Let's talk a little bit more about self-limiting beliefs. It's an honor to host you. Why don't we start by you telling our listeners just a little bit more about who you are and what you do?

Kamini Wood

Phil, thank you so much. That was actually an awesome introduction. I am a coach that works with individuals on helping them understand themselves better. So, really, what I focus on is moving away from pathologizing and trying to diagnose and say, this is the thing that's wrong with me, and instead, it's, can I understand myself better? Because when we have that deeper understanding of self, we actually have the opportunity to move forward. When we are stuck in those old narratives, that's what doesn't allow us to move forward. And this just comes from, as you mentioned, I am a mom of five, so a lot of what I work on definitely has been from my own learnings. Yes, I've been trained, and happy to talk about all the training that I've done, but I honestly will say that my lived experience has also made me even more, I would say, just more in tune with what my clients are going through.

Phil Wagner

So, I'm going to cut right to the chase here. A lot of your work explores what you call limiting beliefs. Why don't we go ahead and just sort of define the main thing that we're going to be exploring today? What are limiting beliefs? Are they the same as like self-doubt, the same as impostor syndrome? How do you operationalize that term?

Kamini Wood

So, limiting beliefs is a very. I want to say it's part of pop psychology at this point. Everyone talks about limiting beliefs. I call them false beliefs. And what I mean by that are those false narratives that we subconsciously live by. So a lot of those will stem from, I'm not worthy, I'm not good enough, I'm not lovable, I'm not deserving. And when we're talking about diversity, for instance, and marginalized communities, a lot of times, what ends up happening is those are the false beliefs and false narratives that are underlying what we're experiencing, right? So the subconscious has those beliefs, and then that keeps us from moving forward, which does lead into things like self-doubt. And imposter syndrome is a form of how we experience those false beliefs. Because if I don't believe I'm good enough or I don't believe I'm worthy, that's going to come out in impostor syndrome of thinking, well, this was just, my success was by fluke. I didn't actually deserve it.

Phil Wagner

I love that. And so I'm wondering then, because you kind of tee us up perfectly in our podcast, this is a learning space, and we deeply explore issues of diversity. How might those, let's call them dominant cultural narratives or maybe even just a lack of representation, how do those feed into this cycle of limiting beliefs and impostor syndrome, particularly for marginalized groups? Like why might people from underrepresented backgrounds have more critical inner voices to grapple with?

Kamini Wood

Well, especially if somebody is part of a marginalized community, right? So, look, I'm going to draw on my own experience as an Indian girl in a white community growing up. Granted, at five and six years old, I didn't have this awareness. This obviously came after the fact. But there is this underpinning of needing to belong. Like as humans, we want to belong, but if we're part of a marginalized community, we're not part of the majority. There is this constant hit that we're getting of not belonging. And so those underlying false beliefs of not being good enough or I don't belong, or I'm too different, or I'm not deserving, that's constantly getting played upon every interaction that we have. And so if you take that and you bring it into even the workplace, for instance, when you're part of a marginalized community, if you have this subconscious belief that you don't belong or you're not deserving of being there, you have to prove your worthiness. That's going to keep you constantly chasing, constantly trying to do more. Like, for instance, I was just talking to somebody about burnout, and she's saying, I'm pushing myself to this point of exhaustion, almost like, then I've earned the right to take a break. But really, what's underneath that is her needing to prove worthiness. And when you take that and extend it to marginalized communities, we're seeing it time and time again that those individuals are the ones that are really dealing with things like burnout because they're constantly trying to prove themselves.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I hear that. We work with students all the time. I think a lot of first-gen college students who are working so hard to prove their worth, to prove their value, to prove that they belong.

Kamini Wood

Deserve to be there right?

Phil Wagner

I deserve to be here. Yeah. Like, look at all that I'm doing to the point that they're wearing it quite literally on their body through their mental health or health decline because there are clearly consequences on the table here. I'm wondering if you can elaborate a little bit more on the false beliefs that dominant culture perpetuates about minoritized populations. Like, how do societal biases or discrimination reinforce those beliefs? As we kind of address the main thing, and we're working to broader justice. That's important because doesn't that feed into those limiting beliefs?

Kamini Wood

It does, absolutely. Because if the majority culture is kind of sees the marginalized communities as different, that's where they're operating from. So we're seeing this in corporations a lot, where, for instance, individuals who are part of marginalized communities do not have the access to sponsorship. Why? Because the majority sees them as different. They don't understand. They're not going to get what we're trying to say. So they don't have access to that sponsorship or the bias stereotypes like knowing that they're different or seeing their differences. It's the attribution bias. Right. I'm going to only stick with the people that seem like me. So therefore, we're seeing that those people who are part of the marginalized communities aren't getting access to the opportunities because people want to stick with what they know. Familiarity. Right. That bias keeps them from being able to move forward. And so when we are in those situations where biases are at play, or we are not having the access to sponsorship, that then leads into the stress on the individual. Right. Because now this person is completely stressed out because this is refeeding and really accentuating this understanding that they are different and that now they've got to. They're not worthy, or they're not deserving. And so then they put in more and more. So now we're seeing, again, we're going into that chronic stress and that chronic overload, trying to prove themselves also, that leads into the things like imposter syndrome, because if the false belief is I don't belong, then, of course, if you've even had even the slightest bit of success, you're going to think that, again, was a fluke or I didn't deserve it. Somebody's going to figure me out eventually. This is going to be taken away from me. I work with a lot of college students, and I'm seeing that even in the college age group where they think that the successes that they're having is merely by fluke and that whatever they have is something that they don't deserve. If they feel like it was just kind of given to them, they didn't do enough to earn it.

Phil Wagner

Did those feelings disproportionately impact? I feel like, anecdotally, I hear much more of that sort of happening. I think, particularly women in the workforce. I think the research would agree here, too, that when something good happens, it was like, well, right place, right time. Whereas men, white men particularly, are more inclined to see this as just sort of a logical progression or their career building sort of naturally in ways that they might expect. Does your work find that?

Kamini Wood

I would absolutely agree with that, and I'm not trying to create a big stir, but it is true that women definitely are part of that marginalized group. Right. Because it's almost like you said, it's just like, wow, I happened to be here, and I kind of got this by happenstance versus with white men, generally speaking, it's well, yeah, that makes sense. Of course, that's the natural progression.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And speaking as a white man, I don't see it as a stir at all. I mean, I think it's a call for white men. It's a really small investment you can make to those on your staff to just acknowledge good work when it's done, to reinforce and to give positive support where it's needed, and it feels right. And I absolutely think it's a call to be more involved. And again, this is a great investment to make sure you're not burning out your employees, and you're not spinning out the best and the brightest. We're there to help build your company. So earlier, you noted that belonging was sort of key. That's a theme that's come up time and time again in some of your answers. I'm reminded, though, that one of the ways that people try to belong or feel as if they belong is to do what we might call assimilate. Right? They fold in. They code-switch. They become someone performatively that they may not be authentically, and it's not because they're a fraud. It's because they may have safety concerns. I'm thinking of, like, trans folks who may need to cover in some ways to be safe in their job. I'm thinking about folks who have shattered the glass ceiling or the black glass ceiling, who may feel like they are the only one representing a community, or maybe the first representing a community, so they feel the need to sort of cover or perform in different ways. How do you encourage your clients to think about the nuances of this conversations, to be unapologetically true to self, but also recognize that belonging is a complicated process? Sometimes, assimilation may feel necessary, particularly for safety concerns. So what do we do? How do we think about this?

Kamini Wood

You just made a really excellent point. Because there is a form of safety, I think, with marginalized communities, as I do think that there's a fear of safety that comes up routinely. And it is important to always make choices that are keeping in mind one safety. When I'm talking about being unapologetically yourself, part of it is recognizing that that doesn't mean I have to go shout it out to everybody and be in their face about it. You can also be unapologetically yourself to yourself, knowing who you are. That comes through things like setting boundaries, being really clear about your own values, being really clear about your own needs, and then taking committed action based on that. So it doesn't necessarily mean we go shout it at the rooftop of this is who I am, and to hell with everybody else. But by the same token, it is about owning it for yourself and paying attention to when you are potentially masking yourself or pushing your own self down in deference to somebody else. Assimilation is a really important thing because that was my experience as a five-year-old going into public school where most every other child, except for maybe one other, was white. I leaned into people pleasing. I leaned into I need to fold myself in. How do I figure out how to belong? How to be part of this group? And for me, that's where my people-pleasing started, where as long as everybody was okay and happy, then it seemed like everything was okay for me. And so I had to, in my adult self, recognize where that story came from, recognizing where my people pleasing came from, and in that sense, set boundaries around how much I'm willing to do for other people, recognizing that my worth doesn't come from everybody else's being okay with me.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. I'm wondering what role does privilege play in developing strong self-belief. We're not afraid of the P-word around here. It's so funny to me that everybody on social media can be like, I'm so blessed, and there's no problem saying that. But, like, God forbid you mentioned privilege. What we simply mean is just access to resources, to capital, to support systems, to family units that are support. That's all that we're speaking of here. I want to be very clear how we contextualize that. But how does that privilege play in developing a strong self-belief? Because I'm wondering, you work with a lot of youth. For fellow parents, how do we address that for youth who don't have access to that capital, to that support system, to that family unit who is sort of feeding them and supporting them and helping them develop their self-concept? How do we grapple with that?

Kamini Wood

Yeah, that's such a great point because I do think that privilege does play a part. Even I was talking to somebody about grief in general and grief with diversity in mind, right? Where a lot of times, people of color don't have the same access to things like therapy, for instance. We were talking about it in context of bereavement and being able to take time off of work. And many of us have to work in order to continue to feed our families. And privilege. When we have the privilege to be able to take that time off, we can actually heal as we need to heal. But if we don't have that privilege, we are marginalized from it, right? We have to continue to work, and we're not able to work through the grief that we have. So it was in the context of grief, but it came up in this idea of how does diversity play a part. Because many individuals who are people of color, and I consider myself a person of color, being Indian, it is one of those things that some of us don't have access to because we don't have the same privilege. When we're talking about the youth, there are many individuals who don't have access to that. And so it's important to start speaking about these things and naming them and recognizing that when it comes to the idea of self-concept, it's not just about self-confidence and self-esteem, but it's deeper. It's about self-acceptance. Can we allow these youth to recognize that they have different parts of themselves and encourage them to honor those parts of themselves, pay attention to what those feelings are communicating to them, and allow them to name what their needs are. When they're able to name that now, they're able to build into this idea of self-acceptance.

Phil Wagner

I love that framing, and I think self-acceptance really gets at such a deeper level. I'm a parent of a preteen and then a younger child as well. And I think we talk a lot about self-confidence, and I hate how commercial that concept has become. Right. It's the idea that if you just wear the right brands or you position your neck a certain way when you walk in the room, you'll feel good in your body. That's so flimsy. Right. So this framing of self-acceptance and other acceptance, which is what I think is also required here, I think really gets to the heart of the issue and brings it back full circle to what we're here to discuss today as well. Part of that self-acceptance is accepting what you and your work call permission to succeed. And I got to be honest with you: I have tangentially interacted with that concept in some ways in my own life, but your work really clarified a lot of that for me. So, you talk about how systems of oppression and discrimination often lead marginalized folks, particularly, to lack permission to succeed in leadership roles. Can you talk a little bit about that, and why that's so problematic, and what we can do to address it?

Kamini Wood

Well, when we have the systemized oppression, what that does is that, again, it's continuing the story. It's continuing the narrative that certain people and certain groups cannot move forward. And so as long as we all continue to buy into that narrative and aren't willing to step outside of that narrative, we're just going to continue to propagate that. It's just going to continue going. It continues to evolve and continues to live and thrive. It's like shame. If we don't talk about it, we continue to be shamed, and we continue to live in shame. Same thing. If we don't start talking about this oppression and naming it and calling it out, it's going to continue. The systematic oppression continues, and it keeps people staying stuck in that narrative, which doesn't allow them room to step outside of it.

Phil Wagner

So, who gives the permission to succeed? Is that something we give to ourselves? Is that something we deal to others? Where does that come from?

Kamini Wood

I truly believe that it starts with self. I think that the person we're going to spend the most amount of time with in this life is with ourselves. We've got to start with ourselves. We've got to give ourselves permission to succeed. And a lot of us don't realize that we're actually holding ourselves back. We're actually scared of success partially because we are influenced by these external sources. There's a little bit of fear involved. But when we give ourselves permission to succeed, we actually own the fact, hey, I am unique, I am different. I am not part of the majority. I'm my own person. And actually start celebrating from a place of self-acceptance who we are. Now we're stepping into this. And also I can succeed. And also I give myself permission to succeed. When we own that, now we have the ability to step forward and to say, I'm going to take my spot. And that's when we start then as a group. Then, we look at the whole group. Can we start giving other people permission to succeed? That's what I was talking about with sponsorship, unequal sponsorship, like in corporations, giving people who are part of these communities the opportunity to succeed by offering them opportunities to have sponsorship to leadership roles and allowing them to step into those.

Phil Wagner

You've been very forthcoming about your own personal journey, so I'm wondering if you can share with our listeners a little bit more about what you've learned in that journey, about confronting internalized bias or stereotypes so that you can confront those self-limiting beliefs and really go out and drive change, do meaningful things like the work that you're doing. Can you share a little bit more of your story, Kamini?

Kamini Wood

Yeah. So, as I mentioned, I grew up in a predominantly white town, and so I definitely stuck out. My name is Kamini. I had darker skin. I was different. And so, for me, it all was about fitting in, belonging, figuring out how I could be accepted by my peers. And so that's why I said before, that's where people pleasing for me really kind of took hold. But beyond that, my parents were immigrants. I mean, culturally, we were different. My parents were working really hard to provide for my sister and I. So there's a part of me also that didn't want to be a burden, right? Because I did not want to cause them any more stress. And so perfectionism also took hold at that same time where it was like, I need to be perfect at these things. I cannot fail because if I do now, I'm creating more problems for my parents. These were two of the false beliefs that I was really dealing with, right? And just the limiting beliefs around that it wasn't okay to fail, for instance. Now, for me personally, it took me actually becoming a mom and starting to see my kids sort of emulate the perfectionism. Now, my kids are actually mixed, and so they have their own identities that were coming up with that because they all have Indian names, and many kids or many kids were telling them, well, you're not Indian. And my kids would come home and kind of be frustrated because they're like, but I am because of you. And so there was that dynamic happening at the same time, which kind of pushed me. It was my catalyst to kind of do that reflection of what's going on and how much of their behaviors is emulating me. And so that was my work. Was recognizing where my own internal lack of self-confidence around it's okay to be different was starting to play out in my kid's world. And it wasn't lack of self-confidence. Let me actually rephrase. It really, for me, was the lack of acceptance. I think, in my brain, it felt like lack of confidence because that's the term, as we were talking about before, that's the term that everybody talks about. They talk about esteem and they talk about confidence. For me, it was that work to recognize that it's okay, first of all, to be different. It's okay to own the fact I actually laugh at the fact that people butcher my name because now I get to use it to my advantage, where if they continue to say my name incorrectly. I'm like, clearly, we're not meant to work together. I'm teasing, but it doesn't bother me like it used to. However, for me, it was also about recognizing that the uniqueness of who I am can actually be the strength if I allow it to be. And that's what I've leaned into, and that's the message I've given my children. And so, as a matter of fact, my middle daughter, who's applying to college right now, even wrote one of her essays around the fact that she came to really love her name. At first, it felt somewhat deflating because it was constantly butchered, very much like my name growing up. And so she felt awkward and weird in class. But then, over the course of her growing up and me having these more direct conversations with her, she realized, wow, this is actually a gift because it actually makes me who I am. There are no other individuals with the same name in the class with me. So hopefully that answered your question. But that's kind of where I ended up.

Phil Wagner

It does. And before we end this call, I'm going to need your daughter to pop on this Zoom call because belongings one are our core values at William & Mary. So, as those college applications come, Kamini, you direct her down to Williamsburg. I kid. I kid. You know, this is almost therapeutic for me. Again, I'm a fellow parent, and parenting is so bewildering. It's the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life. So, apologize if I go into my own therapy mode here for a second. But I'm wondering how you address that and how you pour into high-achieving students, high-achieving young folks. Like, what do you do, even as a parent or as a mentor, as somebody who works with youth? I mentioned this recently, but I get so tired of the rhetoric that comes sort of, like, tongue in cheek of, like, this generation. They don't know what it's like. No, let me tell you. Yes, each generation has had their own struggles, but when you just look at the context, kids are growing up, and, my gosh, there's, like, wars and rumors of wars, and there's generative AI and social media, which has enabled bullying and connection in ways that are complicated. I mean, these kids deal with so, so much, and so they have the same struggles we did growing up and also all of these distractions. So, how do you really meaningfully take the time to pour in? So they develop healthy self-concept, so they shred those limiting beliefs and then again, can actually develop in a healthy way. Do you have any insights for a fellow parent here?

Kamini Wood

Yeah. So, honestly, the very first thing that I always say is, do your own work. Because as a parent, when we're dealing with our own limiting beliefs or those old stories and narratives that we're playing out in our children's world, it is so vitally important for each of us as parents to do our own work. I also really lean into respecting our young adults, meaning don't talk to them like they don't know what's going on. They need the same amount of respect. They need to be heard, and they need space to be able to speak about what it is that they're feeling and what it is that they're thinking. That, to me, is the key of allowing them the ability to move through this very complicated world that they live in. Yes, they have the stressors that we have, but it has been magnified by so many things, like social media. I'm working with individuals who grew up through the pandemic and went to their first year of college through the pandemic. That is no small feat. And we have to respect these young adults as young adults and talk to them with that same respect that we would want them to speak to us with. And if we can really find that place of equal respect that opens up so much in terms of being able to help them through this.

Phil Wagner

I love it. And that first point, I once heard somebody say, hurt people, hurt people. And so that point of doing your own work to make sure, no, you've done the important self reflection, professional development. You need to get yourself together so that you don't bleed out on other folks, I think is key here as well. And I love that principle of respect and just honoring the dignity. And that may be uncomfortable. You may have to have conversations that you may not feel prepared to have. And I think that goes well beyond youth as well. As we sit down and we hear and we listen authentically to the needs of historically underrepresented or minoritized folks, that can be tough if you're not ready. So again, doing that self-work is key. Let's bring this back into organizations. What best practices do you think organizations can implement to address those limiting beliefs that stem from, let's say, like workforce discrimination? How do we ensure, in the context of the world of work, we're counteracting unequal access to self-confidence?

Kamini Wood

Well, I do think that corporations need to do an evaluation of where they are in terms of what is the status and that's that doing the work. I mean, it's the equivalent of doing self-work. It's doing that real self-reflection of what is our status and how does our population, our workforce population, what is its makeup, who has access to sponsorship, having those real conversations. Because we can't make any changes unless we're aware of the status, right? It's the same concept in personal development. Can't make a change unless you bring the subconscious to the conscious until it's in our awareness. So corporations need to take that time, debt to just without judgment, sit down, and figure out where they are. But then, it is about offering ways to create opportunities for those people who are in those marginalized communities. Allow them access to potentially sponsorship, where they can be mentored by somebody so they can see somebody who might be a person of color in a leadership role. Allow them the opportunity to start seeing those things. Allow them the opportunity. Just be mentored by anybody who's willing to actually give them the space to step into a leadership position, perhaps. It is also about having direct communication with the workforce, just like I was mentioning with our teens, respecting them and having open communication, talking to your employees and allowing them to reflect back and not be afraid to hear what the answers are because, like you mentioned before, sometimes we're going to have these really uncomfortable conversations. We can only grow through those uncomfortable conversations. Uncomfortable conversations mean growth is about to happen.

Phil Wagner

Oh, I love that. And I would co-sign that 100%. We are all talking a lot about impostor syndrome, and we know that this impacts, I mean, really, everybody. It doesn't matter your background; I imagine a good chunk of us have felt this. Certainly, I have. Certainly, many of the colleagues that I brush elbows with every day have as well. How do we normalize that as a conversation? Because that's healthy collective sense-making that we all struggle. We all feel as if we are a failure waiting to happen. How do we normalize that conversation while also recognizing and creating room in that conversation to acknowledge it disproportionately impacts marginalized group? I'm wondering how we might balance the support and representation conversations as we think about impostor syndrome. Any insights?

Kamini Wood

I do think that self-compassion plays a role. Self-compassion being kindness over judgment and also the ability to, like you were mentioning, common humanity. Right. A lot of us have dealt with this, and I think especially when you're talking to marginalized communities, having that ability to relate and saying, I hear you. I can relate to this. I myself have felt this feeling of not being good enough or not being capable. In terms of imposter syndrome, the self-doubt creeps in. But then it's also having honest conversations around what that imposter syndrome is about. Most often, it is an inner critic. It's an inner critic beating ourselves up, saying that we're not capable thing that we're setting out to do. So when we're talking to marginalized communities or marginalized individuals, especially in the workforce, it's calling that into the room. What is the inner critic saying? What is that self-doubt about? Because then, once we're calling it out, we can actually take steps to reframe it and recognize, wow, that's just the self-doubt coming into play. When have you actually maybe succeeded? Or what strengths can you call upon to step into maybe this promotion and put yourself up for that promotion?

Phil Wagner

That's so good. Kamini, this has been a wealth of information that you've shared with us. As the final question for today, I'm wondering if one of our listeners says, whoa, this resonates with me. This tugs on my heartstrings. This is like the thing that I've been looking for but haven't been able to find. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about what they can do for further self-development, where they can find you, where and how they can support your work? Speak to our listeners who might be particularly interested in what you've laid out today.

Kamini Wood

Sure. Well, I can be found on the web at kaminiwood.com. I actually have a slew of blog posts about things like this, so definitely, in terms of self-work, that would be an option to really dive into it. I do think that there are many individuals who have blog posts and books out there about things like this, but yes, I'm at kaminiwood.com if they want to reach out to me, and also on Instagram and Facebook at itsauthenticme.

Phil Wagner

Awesome. Kamini, thanks so much for your insights for the work that you do. Here's to shredding those self-limiting beliefs. Thanks for your time today. It's been a pleasure.

Kamini Wood

Thank you so much.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • Why women's leadership talent pipelines are a challenging problem for organizations to fix
  • How leaders can recognize talent pipeline issues before it's too late
  • Why women leaders are leaving corporate America
  • What can companies do to fix the issue of women's leadership talent pipelines
  • Where organizations can go to get help with pipeline issues
  • Why it should be important to normalize messy in the organizational change process
  • How long a talent pipeline fix should take
  • What sorts of problems organizations encounter when addressing pipeline issues
  • Why there is an urgency to fix organizational issues
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. I'm thrilled today to welcome to the show Dr. Carol Parker Walsh, an award-winning executive coach, keynote speaker, and author. As founder of Carol Parker Walsh Consulting, Carol helps organizations unlock innovation by providing coaching, providing training, and foresight strategy. She leverages her extensive experience as an attorney, professor, and social scientist to help clients amplify excellence. Carol's a published Forbes and HBR contributor, a TEDx speaker, and a three-time Amazon bestselling author. Her firm was named the 2021 Impact Company of the Year. We were talking before pressing record. She's got some old ties to Williamsburg and the William & Mary community. So, I trust that we're going to have a great conversation in the next few minutes ahead. Dr. Parker Walsh, it is an honor to welcome you to our podcast. Thanks for making time to meet with us. Tell our listeners just a little bit more about who you are and what you do.

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah. Well, thank you. It is an honor to be here. I love having these type of conversations. My career has been a long one. When people look at it, they think that I've kind of made different pivots and shifts, but there's always been an underlying thread that has guided the work that I do. I started my career as a labor and employment attorney and did that for ten years and did some employment discrimination litigation and then transitioned into a stint as a directing in HR, kind of creating an HR department for a small transportation company, actually in Atlanta, which was a lot of fun, then moved into coming into organizations. The thing about that didn't jive with me about the legal work that I was doing was that I felt like, what if I went inside of organizations and prevented them from being sued and helping them to create places that didn't require a lot of the issues that I saw on the back end of a lot of those lawsuits that I was involved with. So I went in, became an organizational consultant internally when I moved out here to the Pacific Northwest and just really coaching leaders, developing leadership development programs, creating trainings, a lot of the stuff that I do now, but doing it in-house, and I just really enjoyed the work. Initially it was going in teaching leaders like, don't do this so you don't get sued, but then as I went back and got my own doctorate and start really understanding human development and organizational systems, it was really about how to think differently, about how you show up in the space and how do you create spaces where people feel valued like they belong and that they can do their absolute best work. And I was doing that. Then I moved into academia, where I started teaching a lot of this work, structural inequity and leadership and things of that nature. Became an associate dean. And then, right around the precipice of my 50th birthday, I decided I really wanted to go back and work with leaders in organizations and organizations. And so I started my own practice and have been doing that ever since. And it was an interesting time because I remember when I did that, my children, my son was about to go to college, and my daughter was in high school, and both of them were like, are we going to be poor? Like, why are you doing what was happening? Why are you leaving this work? Which I thought was interesting. But what I love now, as they're in their 20s, they love the work that I do, and they're so excited and proud and feel even empowered in terms of what's possible for them and their life and career by watching the steps that I've taken. So, yeah, it's been a fun journey, but that fundamentally has been the through thread, through all of the work that I've ever done, even from practicing to now, is, how can I help organizations create spaces where people can thrive and flourish? I mean, we spend, what's the number? Ninety thousand hours working, or it's probably more than that, but it should be enjoyable. It shouldn't be something that's a drudgery and a misery. And so that's what I feel like my contribution to this work is.

Phil Wagner

It's so funny to hear you sort of muse that if you look at my career, it may look like it doesn't make a lot of sense. And I think when I look over your experience, I think just the opposite. When you follow sort of the thread of DEI theory or the canon, you need a little legal background. You need a little education background. You need to have a foot in the door within organizations. I mean, you sort of, like, live the theoretical legacy that we teach in our diversity in the workplace course. And so I am looking forward over the next few minutes to unpacking your observations. Someone who has had a multi-decade career in know a lot has cropped up in recent years. We talk a lot about this, the post-George Floyd moment. There were DEI consultants everywhere. What really makes this legitimate work beyond a social moment but something that actually can shake organizations at their core and make them operate better. We're going to start by talking about talent pipelines because I know a lot of your work explores access into organizations, which is the key to organizational equity issues. So, you talk about talent pipelines in your work, and I'm wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about why talent pipelines specifically may be related to women and women's leadership in complex, hybrid environments. Such a challenging problem for organizations to fix. What is the underlying issue here?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, well, to your point, what has happened since COVID is that a lot of women who have been trying to function in a very kind of patriarchal system, in a very militaristic organizational systems, just were like, we're done. And so we saw this massive exodus of women, right? There were like one in four women were leaving the workplace because for a variety of reasons. And actually a recent study came out earlier this year that said about 27% of women are going to leave the workplace even this year. So it's not ending. And what has happened is that organizations haven't taken the time to create those kind of pipeline opportunities, those kind of legacy-building opportunities to allow women to promote, but also for women to sustain within the organization. And so when you start seeing this trickle effect of leaders stepping out of CEO positions, stepping out of leadership positions, walking away from what seems to be lucrative positions, that has a trickle effect in the organization, and where one goes, others follow. And so what we're seeing is that if you don't have a good, solid leadership of females or diverse leaders at the upper echelon of the organization, you're going to have a hard time retaining and building that pipeline to the next level because there's not the opportunity for people to see themselves represented, which makes a huge difference. Studies have shown us that when people see themselves in leadership positions, they see it as a possibility for those individuals to rise at that level. And because we're missing that kind of legacy leadership at the top, that information is not getting passed down for successful section planning and for the ability to really position the next generation of leaders with those future-ready capabilities that they need to step into those leadership roles. And so when the pipeline is broken, you know, McKinsey calls it a broken run. When the pipeline is broken, then you don't have an opportunity for that smooth transition for the next generation to step into those legacy leadership positions.

Phil Wagner

But it's not just a flip switch, right? I mean, there has like a check engine light, so to speak, where something is like, hey, buddy, check this out before this comes and wrecks you. And, of course, we find ourselves in that position now. But how can leaders or the organizations they lead recognize this is a problem before it becomes too late?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, that's a great question. And one of the key ways to recognize that is, are you starting to see your females leaving the organization? Are you struggling with retention? Are you struggling with recruitment? And what does your advancement systems look like within your organization? And if you don't see a lot of women in those areas, then that is a check engine light. When you start seeing people walk away, people not going for advancement positions, or you're struggling actually just keeping and getting them in the door, because people see that, right when they're going to step into an organization, or they're interviewing or thinking about moving into an organization, they're going to look to see whether or not someone is actually available there. So a check engine light, is that in the pool of candidates, how many women are you seeing in the pool of those getting promoted, how many women are you seeing? And as you look at your attrition rates, when you look at the numbers, how many of those are women who are actually walking out the door? Right. So those are some check engine light moments that organizations need to pay attention to in order to make sure that they're responding to the issue and making a change that should happen.

Phil Wagner

In your work, do you find that women are leaving, like, I'm thinking, particularly corporate America? Because that's why I'm most familiar with what the data saying, like, black women are leaving corporate America in droves. Women are leaving corporate America in droves. Is this because corporate America isn't representative of enough of their needs, just not flexible enough for their needs? Or it's just better to have a side hustle or become an entrepreneur? Is it better for women to leave, or is this really hurting women, too?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, that's a really good question. And it's interesting, since COVID, we've seen a huge influx of women actually leaving and starting organizations, kind of taking their marbles and playing with them elsewhere. The problem is that organizations aren't doing enough to create career advancement opportunities for women that are. And not just like they have HR. They put out job descriptions and things of that nature, but they aren't creating. And I really hate to use this word. It's not cultural competence, but it really is something that reflects and appreciates the specific needs of women of color, particularly in the organization. How are they addressing bias? How are they addressing microaggressions? How are they addressing the needs for flexibility? How are they talking about coming rising into an upper echelon of an organization when you're either one or a few or just the only one in that particular kind of leadership cadre that's there? How are you looking at intersectionality? How are you looking at looking at developing leaders through the lens of both gender and race or gender, race and class or gender, race, and age, right? All of these. Too often, we want to look at organizations, or we want to look at populations as this monolithic group that, if we just do this for one, that it applies equally to others. But what they're not doing is creating these nuanced ways of supporting women of color in particular, or just women generally, just across the board in order to support them in the ways that they need to be supported. So they become really tone-deaf around certain issues because they're treating women as one collective and not seeing that there's nuances that they need to address, even for the LGBTQIA population. What about this disability or ableism issues? Right? So there's so many different things that they should address. Now, from an organizational perspective, they would think, well, I mean, how minutiae do we need to get into the weeds in order to support all of the differences that are there? But that's why you need inclusive leadership, right? That's why you need people in the upper echelon that can pay attention to those nuances so that when you are creating programs, or you're creating some levels of support, you're doing it through the lens of the needs of the individuals. There was a book written years ago by R. Roosevelt Thompson, I think is his name or Thomas. And he talked about the story of a giraffe and an elephant. That sticks to me to this day. I don't know if you may have heard the story, but he's talking about the whole point of this. How do you create a space where people can feel like they can belong, grow, and flourish? And the story goes that a giraffe, I'll just paraphrase it, but a giraffe builds this fabulous house. It won the Giraffe of the Year award. All the giraffes talked about it was in the giraffe magazine, and one of his friends was walking down the street, who was an elephant, and he said, oh, my friend, the elephant is here. I would love to invite him into my home. Well, of course, the elephant could barely even get to the doors because the doors weren't built to fit into, you know, to fit an elephant. But the giraffe said, well, unluckily, we made the doors flexible, so there was a way for the elephant to get in, but as soon as he got in, he tried to go down the stairs, and he was breaking the stairs, and then when he tried to turn around, he was breaking different things in the house. And the giraffe's first thought was, maybe we should send you to ballet class and so you're lighter on your feet, or maybe we should help you lose weight so that you can fit into this house because I really want you to fit here. And the elephant's comment was, yeah, but I don't think a house built for giraffe is really going to fit an elephant. And that is the same kind of construct that's happening within our organization, is that they're built for a monolithic group, but they're not making room for all the diversity that's in there. And when you have inclusive leadership, when you bring other people to the table, that can give you different ideas. So instead of having just giraffes build the house, if you have inclusive leadership, you have an elephant or a rhinoceros or a porcupine or a lion or whoever at the table helping to build the house. To think of the things that the giraffe probably in and of themselves couldn't think about, not in a mean-spirited way, but just, it's not their worldview, it's not their lived experience. And that's part of the issue. Right. And that's what keeps the pipeline broken and the inability for organizations to really be able to get that dearth of leadership that they need from a diverse population. Studies show, over and over again, the impact on revenue, right? When you have women in leadership, the impact on growth and innovation when you have diverse leaders. So the evidence is there, but there's just a disconnect in terms of how do we really do it.

Phil Wagner

I love that story, and I'm shocked I've never heard that before. What a wonderfully simplistic way to keep the main thing. The main thing, and here's the thing. If the giraffe builds an adaptable house for all, yes, he's going to have nice tall ceilings in that giraffe condo, but he's going to have a nice open floor plan to accommodate too who wins. Yes, the elephant, but the giraffe, too. And I think so often there's so many simple examples: when you create a truly agile work environment that is right for all people to contribute equitably, nobody's sacrificing anything. We all tend to gain so much more. I have a dear colleague who often talks about the buttons that open the doors automatically. We think so automatically for people who live life in a wheelchair and certainly for adaptive physical needs. But the mother who's carrying a child or father who's carrying the child or somebody who's carrying grocery bags, that button helps everybody. And so I think you make a great point here as well. All right, so let's help organizations then. How can companies go about solving this problem? What do they do? It's a well-known phenomenon. I mean, there's data abundant. I mean, we know the data. It's almost like you don't even think about it anymore. What do we do to actually fix the issue? What does your work say?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, so one of the things that I found to be successful, that even we've been able to do, is to really go in, and it sounds so simplistic, but it's really connecting to the humanity of the individuals within the organization. Right? And I know it sounds simple, and to some people, it sounds maybe like woo woo, but that's really what it is because so often when we come in to try to talk about diversity, we start the conversation about differences and respecting differences and acknowledging differences. Right? And that really creates to a lot of individuals a zero sum game that, well. If you're different and I'm different, then who's going to win, right? It creates almost this tug-of-war system as opposed to what we just talked about; it's a win-win all along the way. So what we do is go in and we try to start at the basis of humanity, of grace, of understanding, of open communication, of creating safety for there to be trust and dialogue and open communication. And when you can start with that by bringing people down to a level where we are all in it together, that we all are going to benefit from it, that there's something in it for everyone, and that we can have real dialog and real conversations, then we can raise the bar and start having more difficult conversations because we created a sense of safety and trust. That means that if I say something, I know there's going to be grace and understanding. I'm not going to be accused of something, I'm not going to be told something about myself that's going to maybe trigger something within me, but I can actually sit down and dialog in a way so I can actually hear the other person to begin creating the solutions within the organization that works, that's foundationally and then one of the best things that, the other thing that we really do is creating what I call, like, mastermind groups, where we bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in a collective community to be able to support each other. Because what also tends to happen, particularly in large organizations, is that they're isolated. So there may be a woman leader in this department, but way over in the other building, there's probably another leader over here. And neither the two shall meet or see each other because their work doesn't overlap or their job responsibilities don't overlap. So by, creating communities of support it allows individuals to feel fueled and empowered because they know they're not isolated and they're not alone. And then the other thing, the other level of this is, actually, most people say, oh, mentorship and sponsorship. Right. That's what we need to do more of. But what we've seen, what the data has shown us, is that most mentorship and sponsorship programs are unorganized or volunteer basis. And it's just on the whim of whoever can step up and say, hey, I'll do it, but not even knowing how to do it successfully. And sponsorship is about you putting my name and my expertise in rooms that I cannot be in. And so they need to be allies and advocates, as opposed to just someone who is sitting over them, giving them well-meaning advice. So when you create these programs where you're supporting people of color, you also need to create sponsorship programs where you're teaching people how to be sponsors and to do it successfully so that they're actually supporting people in the ways that they need to be supported and not giving them advice in the ways that they think are necessary or needed. So it's like a layered approach that you do this. And we found that when you come in and create the foundation, you can build out the rest of the programs if you do them correctly.

Phil Wagner

You got me jumping out of my seat on this side of the webcam because there's so many themes that I want to unpack. Obviously, organizations need some help. So, in a second, I want to ask you where they go to get that help. Obviously you. But where do they start? It seems like you're talking about an investment, so I want to talk about that, but I want to tee up that help question because this is confusing work. Right?

Carol Parker Walsh

It's messy.

Phil Wagner

It's messy. Right. So how you'd be well intended, you say, okay, well, this female employee and this female employee, and they should get together, and I should create a group. But then I also have to wonder, well, wait, if I am that female employee, do I to be the female employee? If I am the gay employee, do I want to be the gay leader? If I am a black employee, do I want to be the black mid-level manager? Or do I just want to be folded into the fiber? So if I'm an organization, do I create these ergs? Do I create these support groups? Do I not, do I ignore? Ha, ha. It's a mess. So again, because it's so messy, where do organizations go to get help with this, and how do they know? Do I deal with this internally and use my resources, or do I got to get somebody from the outside, a true expert, somebody who knows this or sees this through a different lens, to come in and help me? What do you think?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, that's a great idea. So it depends for the most part. I would say finding an outside expert helps because inside people, you're never a prophet in your own land, and so you're so close to it. And inside, people have already pre-designed objectives and goals that they have to meet that are aligned to the organization, to what the organization wants them to do. So they may have their hands high if they're limited about what they can do. Also, sometimes, internally, the level of expertise that you need to do this is just not in the organization. Right. They appoint someone, or they have them, and they may know some things, but to have an outside, objective person really helps. Think of it this way: it's like the inside person was a giraffe, and why not invite an elephant, right? Because we've all been thinking about it in this way. Let's bring a different lens that maybe can expand the way that we think about it. So bringing out outside help can actually be a cost-saving factor because you're bringing specific people who have that expertise, who have done the specific work, and who can help you really create something that is going to be more effective within your organization. And it does take time. One of the first things I always talk about is let's normalize messy. Let's normalize messy, right? If you're going to remodel your kitchen, it's going to be messy. Right? Before you get that beautiful end product, they got to rip all the stuff out, and you're left to the bare bones while they rebuild it back up to something that makes sense. So you got to normalize the fact that it's going to be messy. We are messy. We're humans. We're messy. So this work, when you're moving someone into a different way of thinking and being in the world. It's going to be a little bit of a pain process to get to that other place. So you have to normalize that, and you also have to normalize that it's going to take time. This is not an overnight proposition. This is not something that's going to happen. I get so frustrated with all these trainings because a training, the forgetting curve, you forget anything you would have learned in the next month or 2, 80 percent of it. And we're talking about behavioral change. So you need to figure out a way to bring this work in where it becomes a part of their day-to-day experience and not just a one-off thing that they go check off and then go back to business as usual. Right? And so you want to develop something that's going to be embedded into the culture and day-to-day practice of the organization. And that's going to take time, right? That's going to take at least twelve months to not 24 months for you to really implement some change because you're going to deal with a few months of resistance, a little deer in the headlights, a little what are we doing here? What is this meaning for me? A lot of fear and a lot of unknown that's going to happen around this. And so you need time for it to really be embedded into the day-to-day operations of the organization. So bringing people in from the outside, I think, can be a great strategy to partner with organizations on the inside to really create something that's going to be most beneficial and to normalize messy and to make sure that you're giving the time and space to create true behavioral shift and not just information sharing across the board.

Phil Wagner

Well, you just named the title of this podcast, which is absolutely going to be normalize messy because I think we don't talk enough about that. Right. You want to assume that because this is such a tentative, scary territory anyways, you have to have everything together to do good work. And I love your kitchen example. Absolutely not. It doesn't work that way. And if you toil in the mess, we make room to do that in every other entrepreneurial adventure and beyond. Why not here?

Carol Parker Walsh

A mentor once said to me that discomfort is the currency of dreams, which I thought was powerful. And that is true, that it is through the eye of the needle, the eye of the storm, it's the caterpillar becoming. It's through all of that that you get the other to get to the other side. Like if we all hopped and skipped to the greatness, none of us would experience pain or things of that nature. And if you're really committed to doing this work, you have to be committed to the messy.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Do you really know victory unless you felt the struggle? I mean, I think you have to feel it. You have to feel and walk through the lows to really appreciate and understand the highs.

Carol Parker Walsh

100%.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So here's the other thing. As somebody who's been through a kitchen remodel, you're right; it is messy. It can also be expensive. Right. It has that, like remodeling a living room or buying a new piece of furniture or not. So, let's talk about investment, right? Because I get really tired of organizations who want a quick fix. They outsource a training; they bring in a wonderful speaker, they jazz and wow you with some great lunch and a keynote, and then wash their hands and move on. This takes money, doesn't it? So how much time and money should organizations maybe plan or think about investing to, let's say, fix this or just address it? Move the needle forward?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah. Honestly, in our experience and the work that we've done in the literature that we've looked at, we're looking anywhere from minimally twelve months to 24 months because you need time to implement and you need time to have accountability. You need time to course correct. You need time to really make it implemented into a place where it's embedded into the body of the organization. And we're looking at six figures. I mean, let's just be honest. We're looking at minimally 60-75,000, but we're definitely looking at six figures, up to $200,000. But let's translate that into the impact on the bottom line. If you invest that, which, to be honest, is not a huge amount when you're looking at organizations revenue, particularly big organization, but if this work will lower your retention so that you're not paying months and months looking for a replacement for a position and then overburdening your team while you're looking for a replacement if your innovation increases because you have a diverse and inclusive leadership that's thinking out of the box and creating strategies that allows you to move faster and keep your competitive advantage. If you are seeing retention within your organization with people staying, and that productivity and engagement increases, and not only with that, your revenue increases by 20 or 30%, which studies show it can increase up to 20 or 30%, then $100,000 is nothing as an investment to get that type of return on investment.

Phil Wagner

And I think kicking the can further down the line does nothing right. I hate problematizing this, like seeing it as a problem, because this does take an ongoing investment. But let's frame it in that way temporarily. If you address this issue here and now and you really figure out a coherent framework to do it, let's not call the issue fully settled with a capital s, but good to go so that you can focus and harness that collective energy to deal with the other challenges. Right. The rise of generative AI and how you're going to do business in a fractured society. And you can use that power or that extra space, I think, to really innovate and accelerate your organization writ large. I want to talk a little bit about good intentions and how those good intentions don't always lead to good impact because all of these initiatives always start with great intention. But usually, those intentions fall flat, particularly when organizations try to fix these problems themselves. So talk to us a little bit about where those organizations run into problems when they're trying to do it internally, do it ourselves, do the quick and dirty, wash our hands, and move on.

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, they tend to be less effective and sometimes often offensive. So we see the good intentions in the Black History Month programming, these awareness programmings. We see the good intentions with you mentioned before, having speakers come to talk about something, but then there may be tone-deaf around certain issues or populations. So, while one may be thinking it's great you have the population, that is kind of meant to address thinking, where did you find this person? Or when you are trying to create mentorship programs. I talked about before that aren't really supporting the individual but just done through the lens of the mentor, thinking that they know what's best. So they're trying to tell people what to do as opposed to creating spaces for people to do or creating ergs, but not giving them any kind of power or voice, right? Creating them as a way to kind of quiet people down and throw a bone their way by allowing them to get together, but not allowing the issues or challenges that they're wanting to have addressed organizationally being taken up at the highest level. Or when you hire someone who is supposed to be the one in charge of diversity, but you tuck them neatly under HR or some other division and not allowing them to report directly to the president of the organization or the CEO of the organization, because you know that this is a vital project and a vital initiative that you want to take up and that there needs to be conversations at the upper echelon of the organization to really shift organizational culture and to shift the system. So those are some of the things that honestly are very well-meaning, and a lot of people have tried to do, but as we've seen now that we're in 2023, they have not been effective. And it's unfortunate that some organizations that have kind of paid lip service to it, particularly since George Floyd, you know, particularly since everything that happened, there was a massive push to create diversity initiatives and to hire people to do diversity. But now we're seeing with the Supreme Court decision that just came out, people are discontinuing some of their work. They're laying off some of their DEI people within their departments. They're kind of pulling back from having these conversations or doing this work, and it's having a ripple effect in organizations to think, wow, I thought this is where we were going, and now it feels like we're taking a step back. And I think if I were to align these well-meaning intentions that were developed in some organizations, those are probably the ones who are also pulling back on these initiatives, you know, post the Supreme Court decision.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you packed a mean punch there. There's so much to unpack. One of the things that really resonates with me, though, is the visibility of whatever their title is: chief diversity officer, the equity officer. You know, if you're listening, go find out who those people are. If you don't know who they are, your organization has one, but they're often not given the visibility. Are they in the C suite? Are they in the cabinet level? Do they actually have voice? And you really want to dig? Go ask them their budget. There's this onslaught of, like, these DEI programs are excessively funded, wasting dollars. Ask your DEI officers what their budgets are. They are abysmal. If they exist at all, most of the time, spoken all across the world. And let me tell you, from context to context, this is undervalued and under-budgeted work. So I think that point is so clear. Foster those relationships with your CDOs, your equity officers, whatever their title is, and then find out ways to support them. Let's talk about exemplars. Do you have any examples from your work? I mean, you work with some really huge companies. You've done a lot of work over a multi-decade career. Are there any organizations who've gotten it right, or maybe even mostly right?

Carol Parker Walsh

Definitely, you know, a lot of the work that we do, when I talk about getting back in humanity, we base that in a lot of psychological safety work. You know, we look at Amy Edmondson's work and her research, and it seems to be a great starting place. You know, when we were asked to come into an organization to do some antiracist work with them. We started there, and over the course of just the first year, it's a longer engagement. But after the course of the first year, their numbers went from really not having a safe place, not having a conversation, with a lot of infighting, a lot of inability to have real conversations, that their psychological safety scores went up about 167%. And now they had these amazing conversations. In terms of antiracism, they're able to talk about not only having conversations about racism but also about pronouns and LGBTQIA equity. And they're having some real deep conversations implementing change in policies and procedures, creating a new vision statement that's really much more inclusive, where everyone feels a part of, where everyone has a voice in. But we start it from that ground basis that made a complete difference, and we're in the middle of year two now, where we've just seen exponential; that's the word I was looking for.

Phil Wagner

There you go.

Carol Parker Walsh

In terms of growth in their ability to work together. Right. And their ability to have some realness and authenticity with each other. For them to show up as themselves and not feel like they have to hide, but also connect. We've had another organization that we did work with where we were really successful in creating a mastermind, but also supporting those sponsors and helping to develop both legs of those so they can understand each other, talk to each other, support each other. That implemented a reduction in attrition by over, like, 30% because people saw that there was a commitment to them at the organization at that level, to the upcoming and emerging leaders of color, and a support for them. So, they were able to make moves and shifts in a way that not only advanced their career but also made them feel like a part of the organizational structure. So we definitely have seen success in the work that we do, which is why we're very adamant about when people come to us and asking for that type of support. These are the solutions that we bring forth because we know they work.

Phil Wagner

So what I'm gathering from this conversation, as we start to bring it to a close, is that you don't come in and do trainings that are just sort of emotional exploitation. You don't get in; try to make the people feel good so they'll walk out thinking, yay, racism is dead. You really do infrastructure work. I mean, you're working at the seams, below the surface, the tough places, the non-glamorous spaces, the places that really take some toiling. So, if I'm an organization because those are such tough places to address, I might want to just have somebody come in and jazz my people up instead of spending time focusing on those deeper, deep-rooted issues, tell us what happens when organizations procrastinate and why there's an urgency to do this now, to get this right now.

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah, because they have the risk of losing 27% of their staff. They have a risk of losing key leaders in their organization that hold that legacy knowledge that could then give it to the next generation of leaders that are coming forward. Because if they don't do this work, they can suffer revenue loss and they can suffer, credibility loss, and lose their competitive advantage if they're not really thinking about how they can really build this infrastructure that they need to go to the next level. Right. Trainings in and of themselves, particularly with this particular work, it just doesn't work. Right. It's a Band-Aid. It's a check-the-box kind of opportunity. But if you really want to make long-term impact in your organization that's going to impact your bottom line, then you don't want to wait on this. I mean, think about it. If you are struggling with these type of issues today and do nothing about it, problems only compound upon problems. It just doesn't stay the same. It compounds and gets worse. And so over time, if you're losing 5% now, you're going to be losing 10% and then 20% and then 25%, it's going to compound upon itself. So, by not acting now, you're causing yourself. You're going to cause yourself problems in the future. But if you were to act now, you save that, and now benefits compound upon themselves as well. So, if you can turn around that 5% loss and turning it into greater retention as opposed to higher attrition, then it's going to make a big difference within your organization.

Phil Wagner

There's so much here to unpack, and I would hope that this conversation would only prompt our listeners to get a little bit more curious about who you are and what you do if they don't know you already. So the final question I have for you today is for those who want to learn more, for those who are really engaged or interested in something you said, where do they go to connect with you? How can they get in touch with you? How can they follow your work?

Carol Parker Walsh

Yeah. The first place to go is my website, carolparkerwalsh.com. Definitely put the www in front of it, or you can find me on LinkedIn. I'm very active on LinkedIn as well, and I love to share tips and share ideas, sharing some of the work that we have done, sharing some of the testimonials that we've gotten from the work that we've done out there in the world. So you can definitely get a sense of who we are, and my values and missions, and what we do there. But you can always start at our website because it's going to pull you out to all the other channels that will support the work that we do.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and there's proof in the pudding you are somebody who has made a monumental difference. We've seen it quantitatively, obviously, qualitatively, and your LinkedIn presence is huge. So Dr. Parker Walsh, thank you so much for taking time to share with our listeners what a great conversation. Truly respect, admire, appreciate the work that you do and always here to support in any way we can. Thanks for joining us today.

Carol Parker Walsh

Thank you for having me. This has been an amazing conversation. I love this work, and I love that people are taking it up and having a conversation around it. So, if this helps just one person, then this has been a fabulous, successful event.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Toby Mildon
Toby MildonEpisode 54: January 29, 2024
Beyond Box-Checking: Inclusive Growth

Toby Mildon

Episode 54: January 29, 2024

Beyond Box-Checking: Inclusive Growth

Today on the show, we welcome Toby Mildon. Toby is a diversity and inclusion architect and founder of Mildon, a consultancy and advisory business. He works with businesses to re-engineer entire processes and systems to minimize the impact of bias and build cultures of inclusion. Prior to setting up his businesses, Toby worked as an in-house diversity and inclusion manager at the BBC and at Deloitte.

Podcast (audio)

Toby Mildon: Beyond Box-Checking: Inclusive Growth TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Toby started his DEI journey
  • Where companies fall in the spectrum between box-checking and avoidance in regards to DEI issues
  • What is the global pushback against the word "woke" and perceived woke ideologies
  • What are some common frustrations among DEI leaders
  • Best practices for implementing DEI strategies in an organization
  • How to engage senior leaders to get full buy-in for DEI strategies
  • What are questions leaders should ask themselves to get to the "why" of implementing DEI strategies
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Very excited to chat with today's guest. We have had multiple scheduling obstacles. We are coordinating across different time zones. There is an ocean between us, but it is a delight to host Toby Milden here today. Toby is a diversity and inclusion architect and he's founder of Milden, a consultancy and advisory business. Toby works with businesses to really re-engineer entire processes and systems to minimize the impact of bias and build cultures of inclusion. His work is rich, it is nuanced, and you'll get to hear some of that today. Prior to setting up his businesses, Toby worked as an in-house diversity and inclusion manager at the BBC and at Deloitte.

Phil Wagner

Toby, it is an incredible privilege to welcome you on our podcast today. Thanks for making time to join us from across the way. It's clear that you're a passionate DEI advocate. It's clear you've got a global footprint. Before we talk about your work, though, I want to bring it back to your why. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are? Share your story with us. I'd love for you to connect the important work that you do to your own experiences of inequity.

Toby Mildon

Yeah, thanks, Phil. Well, it's lovely to see you. Thanks for inviting me along. So, I actually kind of fell into diversity and inclusion when I was working at the BBC. So, at the time, I used to work as a project manager in tech. So I was involved in the development of the BBC news website, the BBC Sounds app, which is where people can listen to radio and podcasts, and also quite a lot of accessibility projects. And the senior leadership team were concerned that there was a gender imbalance within tech. So, only 14% of our workforce were women, compared to the rest of the BBC, which had a 50-50 gender split. And to cut a long story short, they had created an action plan to get more women into technology, and they needed a project manager to implement the plan. And that's where I put my hand up and volunteered. But on reflection, I've always had an interest in equality because I was born with a rare genetic neuromuscular disability. I've had my own experiences and my own challenges of getting into and being able to progress my career with a disability, so I've always been interested in equality, and that was one of the reasons why I used to run the BBC's disabled staff forum, where we would represent the voices of disabled staff working in the corporation.

Phil Wagner

Such fantastic experience. One of the things that I love the most about your work is that you don't mince words. I mean, you're very clear what your focus is and where your passions lie. You've built the inclusive growth culture program, and I really like how you sell it. You note that you're here, and I'll quote for our listeners, right? You're here to stop the box-ticking, media stunting, lip service, diversity initiatives and help you, being your clients, implement real change. So let's talk a little bit more about that box-ticking, the media stunting, the lip service. You know, here in the US, a lot has changed over the past year. I mean, really, post George Floyd, we saw organizations kind of like clamor to uphold DEI at mass. Yet recently, there's been a lot of pushback and backlash. Do you find that companies are still doing the lip service, or is there a broader trend to go silent here?

Toby Mildon

There's a bit of both. There are organizations that are rolling out activities which they're very superficial, and they don't really have an impact. So it's things like a bit of rainbow washing, where during LGBT Pride Month, they might change the color of their logo on their website or their app, but they're not really making any changes internally to make sure that the experience of LGBT plus staff is an inclusive one, for example. Or an organization might sign up to a charter to do with disability, accessibility, and inclusion, but that's as far as it goes. They've put their signature on a piece of paper, but they don't really then take any tangible action. So there is a lot of that kind of box-ticking, superficial stuff going on. And like you say, I think the other end of the extreme is avoidance, where companies are just not doing anything about diversity and inclusion, and they might just be burying their heads in the sand, or they just think it's a load of woke nonsense and it's a waste of time and money to be focusing on it.

Phil Wagner

You've got such a global footprint. So I want to ask you again: here in the States, there's a lot of pushback against the very word you just mentioned, woke and woke washing. Here, it's been used as sort of a US political talking point. Do you find the same disdain for woke globally? I mean, is there a broader or more global pushback to either woke ideology or just kind of that superficial DEI work that has grown ad nauseam? Do you find the same pushback globally?

Toby Mildon

Yeah, there is. I mean, here in the UK, the word woke has been weaponized as something that a bunch of Gen Z lefties are worried about. And I think also we're operating in a political climate where political parties are creating divisions rather than uniting us. So, I mean, here in the UK, the Brexit did not help, and us leaving the EU, in my opinion. And the narrative that went around that included a lot of scaremongering and fear and creating divisions. And then here in Manchester, where I live, only a couple of weeks ago, we had the conservative party conference, and high profile politicians were making remarks on stage around transphobia and things like that, again, which create divisions rather than unite us.

Phil Wagner

So, in your work, and maybe this speaks to that question a little bit more. In your work, you mentioned some key frustrations that D&I practitioners face in organizations, DEI leaders. What do you think are some of the most common frustrations, and why do they occur?

Toby Mildon

Yeah, so this really was kind of the crux of my book, actually. So when I sat down and started writing my first book, Inclusive Growth, I was thinking to myself, what are those frustrations, or what are the missteps that organizations are making? And how could I codify that somehow? And I came up with seven categories, and really, the top seven frustrations were not having enough data, therefore, not able to kind of create robust strategies. Not having enough attention on culture and understanding how behaviors can make or break a culture. Not having proper change management processes in place. Therefore, people felt really burnt out and frustrated about the lack of impact that they were making. Too much of a focus on trying to fix the individual and make them fit in rather than really address the systemic issues or challenges that were creating inequality within the workplace. Not enough focus on how technology can actually help us scale what we're trying to do within the diversity and inclusion space, but also not enough focus on making sure that technologies that we use are accessible. And then, the final two were not collaborating across the whole organization, where diversity and inclusion is just seen as the HR department's responsibility, and it's not a shared responsibility. And then finally, and I was a bit tongue in cheek about this, is kind of celebrating around organizations, saying that they're really inclusive and going out trying to win awards and doing lots of PR stunts, but the reality for staff is that it's not an inclusive place to work. So there's this kind of disconnect or this rhetoric gap that we are creating between what we might be saying to the outside world but what the experience is for staff on the inside.

Phil Wagner

So the inclusive growth framework, then, that's really a model to implement diversity and inclusion sustainably. Those seven core principles, is it just walking out in that order, having better data, executing proper change management, not focusing too much on the awards and the public relations? Is that how we implement the framework?

Toby Mildon

It's more that those are the best practices. These are the seven strategic buckets that you should really be thinking about if you want to be a leader. But you're right. What the framework doesn't talk about is the how to implement it. And that's actually the subject of my second book, which I'm currently writing.

Phil Wagner

Okay.

Toby Mildon

Because I give away more books than I sell, by the way, so I give my books to my clients, and they're like, oh, my God, I love the book. It's brilliant. It's full of great advice and best practice, but how on earth do we actually implement this in the business? So that's the subject of the second book because now we've got a few years under our belt, we've got a tried and tested methodology, which I call the flywheel. And that's going to be the subject of my second book. And it's how you actually get this embedded into the organization.

Phil Wagner

Can you unpack that flywheel for us just a little bit more? Because that does, again, that gets more into the clear methodology for organizations to follow. So those sort of key stages for organizations to focus on and common mistakes to avoid.

Toby Mildon

Yeah, I mean, first of all, people are like, what's a flywheel? Let's just play it. Clearly, a flywheel is like one of those kind of Catherine wheels that you see at the fireworks display where they spin around and around. And the reason why I call it the flywheel is because this is a process or a methodology that should just be a continuous process. It's not linear. You don't just do it once because diversity and inclusion is something that you need to kind of embed into the organization. So, first of all, the first stage really is around raising awareness, getting people comfortable with talking about diversity and inclusion, because I think a lot of people are very uncomfortable about talking about various topics. There's a lot of confusion about language. Diversity and inclusion has just become an industry in itself, just absolutely crammed full of acronyms and lots of terminology that people are like, what on earth is, what's the difference between a microaggression, a micro inequity, and a micro invalidation? It's like, what on earth is all of that? So we need to kind of clear this kind of language up and just get people comfortable with talking about it and understanding why it's important for the business that they work in. That's kind of stage one if you like. Stage two is then really focusing on your senior leadership team, making sure that they are really engaged in this agenda, making sure they are completely sold on it, and making sure that they are happy to lead this topic from the top of the business. Because as somebody working in HR, you've got such an uphill struggle if you don't have your senior leadership team fully on site or they're just trying to delegate it to other people. Once you've done that engagement piece, you then need to do an assessment of your business to really find out what's going on for your people; what are the real day-to-day challenges that people are facing in your organization? And you can do that through a myriad of ways. But also, you need to do a bit of a gap analysis about what are we actually doing right now on diversity inclusion. How does this compare to best practice, and what are some of the gaps that we need to plug in to come up with a strategy so that everybody's clear on the way forwards? And then, once you've got that strategy, you can then move on to the next phase, which is implementation. Which I know it sounds a bit simplified, but loads of people actually forget this part. They have great fun developing the strategy, and they put it into a nice glossy brochure, but then that brochure goes into a drawer somewhere, and it gets forgotten because loads of other business priorities take precedent. So implementation is really key, and it's about making sure that you've got a shared responsibility for actually implementing it in your business. And then the final stage is continuous improvement. It's about continuously refining what you're doing, making improvements, increasing quality, and making sure that you're making the desired impact.

Phil Wagner

These are excellent. And again, I appreciate how robust a framework all of this is. Let's talk a little bit about the accountability that's needed to walk out that flywheel, that framework, leadership, accountability, and buy-in. Those are crucial for diversity and inclusion efforts to succeed. So, what advice do you have for how do you engage up the ladder? How do you engage senior leaders, particularly the executive suite, and really get their support in a meaningful way beyond just the lip service? Beyond sure, we'll fund this, you know, taco Tuesday cultural initiative, but to actually get their real personal felt buy-in. Any strategies?

Toby Mildon

Yeah, I mean, you have to really get them to identify with the why. And to borrow the words of Simon Sinek, start with the why. And loads of organizations start from the outside in. They're focusing on the what and the how, but they're not entirely clear on the why. And the thing is every reason why, or the business case, if you want to call it that, is unique for every single organization. Yes. As a senior leader, you could go down and download the McKinsey reports, and you could cognitively understand how diversity and inclusion impacts business performance. Because McKinsey have done the research to show that businesses perform financially better. They're better at innovating, better at decision-making, better at creating relationships with customers and clients, et cetera et cetera. But you have to figure out why it's important for your business. I mean, like Simon Sinek says. He says it's a process of discovery rather than invention. So what I do with my clients is I go on this journey of discovery with them. And the simplest way that you can do that is play the five whys game, where you ask yourself, why is diversity and inclusion important to the future success of our business? And you write the answer down, and then you go, okay, that's great. Well, why is that important? And you just keep going, and you keep asking yourself why five times until you get to the fifth answer. And that should really be the key nugget for you. And then obviously, you want to try and then socialize that across the rest of the senior leadership team so everyone's on the same page.

Phil Wagner

I love that as a teacher, I'm totally stealing that. But I'll give you credit, Toby, for sure; I love that five whys because I'm always trying to do that. I think in the classroom is get to that really felt personal commitment. And I really appreciate your framing on this very podcast. And certainly, in some of the courses I teach, I think maybe even I included, we're so quick to toss the business case off the table because it is a flimsy platform to build this commitment on. But I like your framing here, that the personal and professional often do collide. And so it's a more why-focused. It's a richer, maybe, yes, business case, but it's personalized. And I think that's really nuanced, and I think that offers a different lens here. And you tee us up for my next question is, as a teacher, I'm always thinking, how do I give my students the space to really reflect and make this personal? And you talk a lot about personal action in your work. You even provide some planning tools with reflective questions. Walk us through some of the key questions that leaders should be asking themselves to get to that deeper sense of why. To that deeper commitment.

Toby Mildon

Yeah, I mean, a good place to start is the exercise that I've just outlined to understand how it applies to your business, but also maybe think about how you can connect with diversity and inclusion as an individual. Do you have a personal connection with it? A lot of leaders that I talk to, for example, they get really passionate about diversity and inclusion because they've just been diagnosed with a health condition or a disability, and they've realized that the workplace is not set up for disabled people very well, or their son or daughter has just been diagnosed at school with autism, or another neurodivergent condition, for example. Or one of their kids has just come out as LGBT, a member of the LGBT community. So they start to have a personal connection to it, and they start to kind of think, well, okay, I wonder what the future of work is going to be like for my kid in the workplace. So there's that. If you can't connect with it personally, then try and think about how you can connect with it on a more rational level. So go out and do some research. There's tons of research out there about the business case of diversity and inclusion, and find something that you feel passionate about. Is it about financial performance? Is it about innovation or creativity and effective decision-making? Is it about building better relationships with a diverse customer base? Find that thing where you can kind of hook onto.

Phil Wagner

So you mentioned this, that so many people come to this work well-intentioned, semi-well-informed, but it becomes a richer journey as they have that more personalized connection. I think a lot of times, we hear diversity consultants giving advice to people who are really kind of just getting started. But I like what you have to offer because I think we're at a new inflection point. I'm wondering what recommendations you might give to leaders who are passionate about DEI. They've started the work. They've started the self-diguring. They know their why. They know some of the vocabulary and the endless list of acronyms. What do you say to them? Because this is a new season, dare I say, there is more pushback, there is more blowback. There's more opposition to this work, including in organizations, than perhaps ever before, certainly in recent history. What priorities do you recommend those folks keep front of mind so they can continue to engage, continue to drive change, continue to do the work of DEI?

Toby Mildon

So, if I'm a really passionate senior leader in a business, first of all, my first priority is to get as many of my peers on side with me. There has to be an understanding that you're not going to get everybody on site because there will be some senior leaders who think it's a load of woke nonsense or they just don't think it's important enough to the business. They just don't see the importance of the priority of it. And that's okay. Focus on your kind of early and late majority and start to work with those that are kind of really eager to work with you, the innovators, the leaders. So, build that coalition around you. So that's kind of phase one. The second phase is actually a focus on behavior because loads of organizations focus on the initiatives, so they'll start thinking about what events they want to plan, even what policies they might want to review, or setting up employee resource groups or things like that. They're not really thinking about leadership behaviors, whether those are inclusive or not, whether those behaviors are creating the right culture or a damaging toxic culture, or if these behaviors are actually aligned with your organizational values in the first place, and there might be some incongruency there. So I think you have to do a bit of an audit about what are the behaviors. Are they helping or hindering us? Are they in alignment with our values or not? And how can we actually go around developing the most senior leads in the business to upskill them in the new behaviors so that they can start to really set the tone for the business?

Phil Wagner

This is fantastic, Toby. You offer such great, nuanced insights. I appreciate how you dig deeper. You've already mentioned your books, the ones out, the ones being written. Can you tell our listeners, as we wrap this conversation, a little bit more information about where to get your work, how to grab hold of the framework, how to seek you out for consulting services? How can our listeners support you? Where can they find your stuff?

Toby Mildon

Well, it's always great to connect with people on LinkedIn. I create loads of content, so the person listening to us today is more than welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn. Send me a message and follow me. Follow my content on there. If the person listening to us right now wants to get a copy of my book, probably Amazon. It's the quickest and easiest way. I know that it's stocked in other places, but Amazon is kind of the main place to go, really, for the book and for just general information about my company. My website is milden.co.uk, and loads of information on there as well.

Phil Wagner

Toby, it's such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for making time to chat with me again across the ocean, different time zones, multiple scheduling obstacles. But I appreciate your time. It's been a wonderful conversation, and we look forward to continuing to support your great work.

Toby Mildon

Thank you, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Ti'Juana Gholson
Ti'Juana GholsonEpisode 53: January 15, 2024
Black.Female.Entrepreneur.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Episode 53: January 15, 2024

Black.Female.Entrepreneur.

Our guest today—Ti'Juana Gholson—is a member of the Maximize Life Coaching and Mentoring team and a demonstrational live coach specializing in program development, strategic and financial planning, as well as business structuring. As a serial entrepreneur herself, Ti'Juana provides everyday mentorship—mentorship for the here and now—and coaching to small business owners or contract professionals through her company, Tag Consulting. Her mission is to provide support and demonstrate "the how to start and how to maintain a business."

Podcast (audio)

Ti'Juana Gholson: Black.Female.Entrepreneur. TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Ti'Juana and her business partner developed their entrepreneurship in the healthcare space
  • How Ti'Juana overcame obstacles to access capital as a young African American woman
  • What needs to happen to properly set up a small business
  • The challenges women face when starting a business
  • The role partnerships and collaboration play in the success of small businesses
  • How to deal with self-doubt and imposter syndrome
  • Why it's important to be your authentic self at work
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Our guest today, Ti'Juana Gholson, is a member of the maximized life coaching and mentoring team and is a demonstrational life coach specializing in program development, strategic and financial planning, as well as business structuring. As a serial entrepreneur herself, Ti'Juana provides everyday mentorship, mentorship for the here and now, and coaching to small business owners or contract professionals through her company, Tag Consulting, LLC; she says, my mission is to provide support and demonstrate the how to start and how to maintain a business. She's qualified as a marriage and family counselor. Her unique and candid approach to human behavior qualifies her well for our conversation here today. She's very energized to share her knowledge through real-life and real-time growth and development in her business ventures. She's a self-starter who strives to remain relevant, relatable, and real. I trust you'll hear all of that on our podcast today. Ti'Juana, my friend, thank you for joining us for another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. It's a pleasure to have you here.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Thank you for having me. I was just about to say that person sounds phenomenal.

Phil Wagner

She does sound phenomenal, right? Did I get your bio right? Is there anything else you want to share with us? Did I cover it all? You do so much.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Yeah. And sometimes, I actually utterly do not enjoy sending bios to people because of the amount of work that is being done through this earth suit of mine. And sometimes it seems like, oh my God, that girl ain't doing all that. But if I would add anything else, it would be that I'm a nonprofit founder co-founder of a nonprofit organization, and I do a lot of my charity and philanthropy work through the nonprofit organization, especially when it comes to business and financial education. To the small business owner, we focused on SWaM businesses over the last few years, especially helping folks getting back in shape after the pandemic. So I would add that, and I would also add that I am the proud co-founder of the Women's Business Symposium Meets the Maximized Man, which we are hosting this weekend, actually at the College of William & Mary Sadler Center. So that's all that I will add for now. We'll talk it all through as we go.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, we absolutely will. And I'm hoping, since stories are such an important part of your work, if you can take us back into your own story, sort of the story behind your first entrepreneurial endeavor and maybe some of the challenges you faced and how your community supported you, I'm thinking about overcoming obstacles and communal support and entrepreneurial mindsets, and I know that all of that is a part of your work. So, take us back and tell us a little bit more about the story behind that first entrepreneurial endeavor, will you?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Well, let me tell you, it's almost like it's not a first. It was a first of many entrepreneurial endeavors because I'm sure someone on your listeners can relate to trying something until you got that one thing. And that's what happened with myself and my husband, who's also my business partner in many of my endeavors. We tried this, and we tried that until we found that one thing, Phil. And what we really figured out was something that a word my husband came across. I don't know if he made it up or what, but he called it the F.A.N.A.F.I. Principle find a need and fill it. And as we were learning in small business ownership, we thought, okay, if we come up with a nice little idea, people are going to come. But what we've learned over time is that people will come if it's a need. So we found that one thing at that time, about 25 years ago in the healthcare world, that there was a need for what we do. And that's when we discovered that, okay, at that time, that was our one thing. So it was a journey. I can't pinpoint, like, some people, they've done the same thing forever. And it's like I can pinpoint the day I started, and I pulled myself up from my bootstrap. Well, we didn't actually do it that way. We kind of tried a whole lot of different things because we knew at heart that we were entrepreneurs. We just knew that for years that this is the life that we wanted to live, the lifestyle of an entrepreneur.

Phil Wagner

I love it. Now, for our listeners who may not be as familiar with you, tell us a little bit more about that one thing and maybe a little bit more about how that's developed over the last 25 years because there's a lot that has changed or happened in that healthcare space over the last two and a half decades.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Absolutely. And let me just tell you about the type of healthcare space that we're in and why it's so significant, and why we love what we do. I went to school to be a social worker initially and accomplished that. Got my master's in counseling because I wanted to help people. Same with my husband. We wanted to help people. So, in working as a young social worker years ago, I found that there was a need, especially for people with disabilities, intellectual disabilities, mental health concerns in the community. And so we started a company. It's called Family Matters Services, where we provide in-home support to people with intellectual disabilities. So, for instance, still, if you're not really familiar with it, it is a program that's licensed by the Department of Behavioral Health, and most of our clients receive Medicaid funding, and they have to in order to receive the services, the state has developed a waiver program for them to receive the services. So, they have to meet a certain eligibility criteria in order to get the service? And the services are gatekept by local community services boards. So, if you're in the Colonial area, we have colonial behavioral health. I don't know if you're familiar with that organization, but that's our gatekeeper that refers individuals to programs like ours. Anyway, our staff goes into the home, say, for instance, you have a child with autism, and you need some supports with that child, and you still need to go to work and live life as life. We are that support service for that child. So not only is what we do a need being filled in the community. It's also a challenging need when it comes to just making sure people get the right resources. The right support that they need. And now that we've gone through the pandemic era, it's also a staffing challenge. Just trying to keep staff engaged and trying to be competitive with staff, and trying to just overall keep staff. Honestly, to be honest with you, it's been a different world since we've gone back into the world from the pandemic.

Phil Wagner

This is all very helpful, and I'm wondering, as part of that story, can you share a little bit more? I'm thinking so many folks are promised a reality in their entrepreneurial ventures that may not pan out to be true, and specifically those from underserved and minority communities. Black and brown entrepreneurs may not be able to access capital or access support in the same way. And so that revenue generation piece is really key. Can you speak to any of that? How you took this idea and made it profitable, but also overcame some of the obstacles in accessing capital, accessing support, and building that community around those entrepreneurial endeavors that really ultimately allowed it to take off?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Okay, that's a mouthful.

Phil Wagner

I know. I'm known for that. I'm so sorry. It's so bad. It's a bad habit. Seven questions in one.

Ti'Juana Gholson

That was seven in one, Phil, but I'm going to try to strip it piece by piece. Let's start from the beginning. We'll go back to your beginning. What did you do in the beginning? Let me tell you, because you hit a nerve when you said accessing capital, especially as African American woman. Initially when I decided, because I decided to step away from my job first, it was a process. In our family, we didn't have anyone to invest in us or to give us thousands of dollars to get started and go get a brick-and-mortar building to start our business. We didn't have that, so we had to be creative. In fact, when I brought the idea up to my family, they looked at me like I was crazy. Like, why would you do that? Because at that time, I was in my 20s, my husband was in his 20s, and we had young children and just from. Okay, so it's two sides of the coin. It's the sides of the coin from your own community that says, are you crazy? Have you bumped your head? You went to school all these years to quit your job and go and be an entrepreneur and step out on a dream. You got little kids. Heard all of that. So that was my first encouraging words from people in my community and then to go to the bank, oh, no, you're too young, you're too new. We don't trust you enough to give you a few thousand dollars to launch this business was also disheartening. So, there were several times that I decided to give up. Just said forget it. But I had a bright idea, and I don't advise many people to do this. In fact, unless you're sure that this is what you want to do for your entrepreneurship path, I decided to take some of my 401K and my retirement. I had to fund my own life. I had to fund my own dream and my vision. And my husband and I, we had to talk about it, and we said, hey, if we think this is going to work, we're going to have to work this together. It's a whole lot of other pieces to the pan, but we took out a few thousands of dollars so we can launch our business. I promise you, 25 years later, we haven't looked back, and we funded our retirement. We're basically financially free and retired. We do what we do because we're still young and healthy, and we want to continue to help the community. But yeah, it was difficult to access capital. Now, speeding up from the early nineties to now 2023. Is it easier for African American and black and brown community to access capital? Not really. It's not that much easier. Now, it has been a little easy over the pandemic era because that's been for everybody across the board because there wasn't access of capital initially. I'm sure you heard of if people had their paperwork together, the PPP and the idle and all that stuff that some people were able to access, but there still was a handful of people feel that could not access that because they were small business and mom and pop thinking that they didn't have good records, that they didn't have payroll summaries, that they didn't have their structures set up properly. And that's where we found an issue with a lot of minority-owned companies. They just didn't have the structure. So, our nonprofit organization we went for a grant through the Department of Housing and Community Development to help support. When I said we helped folks shift from the pandemic, we did exactly that. We were granted funds to bring in professional partners that help to support these small businesses. We brought in attorneys that could help with them setting up their structure and developing their operating agreements, and if they were going to be an LLC, help to get that paperwork recorded. We brought in CPAs who helped with their budget and projections and their taxes. We brought in insurance professionals that helped them protect their brand and protect themselves. As key men, we brought in bankers that were willing to work with our folks and come in and teach sessions. This is what we look for. Get these documents together. You do need a business plan. You might not need to write a dissertation, but we need to know your vision, and we need to know how this business is going to scale so that you can pay us our money back one day. So we brought in the professional partners, and we even took it a little further, Phil, with human resources practitioners coming in, because a lot of small businesses don't think that they need to function like a business. You can't just hire mama and cousins and daddy is off a whim and don't have any documents because what happens when everybody's upset? Then, you can't get rid of them because you didn't properly follow HR practices. So we bring in HR practitioners, we bring in marketing specialists, we bring in technology specialists that can help you help some of our small businesses automate so that they can scale, especially if you're a one-man, two-man show, and there's not so many hours in the day and so much strength in one body. So, automation may be something that you want to look into. So we bring in those professionals, and we have a monthly boot camp. We call it the maximum business boot camp. Those professionals, they're dedicated. They come in, and they teach these sessions to our small business participants. And then we don't just leave them there, because what we found, too, is sometimes information becomes information overload, and you get stuck and you don't know how to apply it. So what we do is we pair them with coaches and mentors that can help them to apply what they've learned in our boot camp. Which is a 16-hour session, four sessions over two days. We used to do it in eight weeks, but we found that we were losing adult learners because everything comes up, especially if you're a small business owner, everything's going to come up. So now we do it in 16 hours, two days, either virtually or in person, but we follow them for eight to 16 weeks. Everybody's situation is different depending upon their industry. You'll have some folks that have been with us several years because they're working on a prototype of a product. So we're still working on those things. And we even connect them with other community resources like the SBA. The district director actually comes and teaches in our program as well and help folks with knowing how to apply for government contracting and the relationship the SBA has with the community. What does that mean? What does that look like? Everybody heard about the SBA during the pandemic, but did anyone really knew what their function was? I don't know. So we bring those type of folks in as well, and just some of our local community leaders, like the chamber, we partner with them as well and do some great community work. So it is and has been a journey. So, from my learnings and my mistakes and my hard knots upside the head, we've poured into the program, especially with accessing capital, because everybody comes to our table wants to know how do I get money for my business. What's the process? So, we develop that process so that they can learn how to access capital. Now, for those that follow the process, it's a little bit easier. But I'll tell you what, there's still some. When you're a brand new business, and you're just getting started, there's still a lot of individual or personal liability that goes into it, which a lot of entrepreneurs don't realize. They think, oh, I started an LLC, I'm a business now. I just bossed into a bank, and they're going to give me hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they're not going to do that because your business is too new. A lot of times, you can't even access capital until year five because they want to see a history of revenues. They want to see what your PNLs look like each month. They want to see what your taxes look like. And have you been responsible enough to get your taxes done? That was one of the reasons that a lot of some of the minority-owned businesses didn't get capital during the pandemic is because they didn't have those tools or that documentation in place. Hopefully. Did I hit?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Ti'Juana Gholson

I talk so much.

Phil Wagner

You and me both. So we are a good company. I appreciate it because you show how the process is not a copy-paste process for all. That it's different, it's different by identity affiliation. But there's something else you mentioned earlier that reminds me of something of your work, and I hope you'll speak to it. You mentioned it's a little bit different if you're a one-man show or a two-man show. What about if you're a one-woman show or a two-woman show? You have talked a lot in your work and worked very closely with women specifically. Addressing those gender norms of the business world head-on, specifically as it relates to money, and financial success, and entrepreneurialism. I'm wondering, can you speak to the gender dynamics and specifically how you pour into women in this space? Any specific advice to women wanting to get in?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Yeah, listen, I am a champion of women. I'm sure if you perused my website or looked at some of my Facebook followings, I champion women. That's one of my platforms. I have a network of over a thousand women on Facebook called Ladies Impacting Professional Systems, where I invite women to come and share about their businesses as well as a place for them to network. Before the pandemic, we used to do what we call business mobs, and we used to put, I call a hootie who out and say, hey, we're going to meet at so and so's restaurant tonight. Let's go and give them a big day. And we will all meet there and network and that person would host, and we will go, and we will spend money in that person's business to give them a good day. I love celebrating, and I love helping women and women entrepreneurs. I don't know if you know, we're having a gala coming up on the weekend, and we are actually celebrating nine leading women here in the Historic Triangle area.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Ti'Juana Gholson

And yes, these women have many of them. They are in positions where it's the first time that a lady has been in this position. And I don't think a lot of the community have paid attention. One thing, and they're not it. Once we started writing a list, I mean, it is so many women in the historic triangle area. I'm like, what? These women are in these particular positions, and nobody's saying nothing. I wonder if it'd be that way if it was a dude. Because historically, women have had struggles in the workplace from unequal pay, which still is unequal. It's not the same. It's not. I know a lot of people think it is. It's not the same. And then, if you couple it with me as an African American woman, I feel that we have to always do bigger, better, two, three, four steps ahead and do a little more and push to prove more than the average. And I speak with leading women all the time, and they range from the overachiever because a lot of our personalities are formed because of the struggles that we have as women and the struggles with gender, quote, unquote, gender norms in jobs. So then we'll become an overachiever, that one that won't leave the office at night, daggone near losing their relationship at home because they're trying to be just one step ahead of their male counterparts. And then we have that alpha male personality, female that she's the lead, but nobody likes her because she's being mean like she's trying to portray herself like her counterpart, male counterpart. Then we have the people pleaser, that one that don't know how to say no. And then they're burnt out, and they're no longer liking their jobs or their positions. And then there's another one, Phil, that I call the I'll never be enougher person.

Phil Wagner

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Ti'Juana Gholson

I will never be enougher. Just you know. Just barely making it and apologizing. I encourage women just to own where they are. Just own where you are. Just simply be yourself in any situation because it is so hard to try to be all of these pieces. And one thing about us as women feeling, I'm sure you probably heard it from the women in your life, is our job don't just stop at the office. When we get home, there's another job there waiting for us, too, just until we go to bed at night. So burnout is real in our life. And it's because of all those things that we're fighting during the day with gender norms and trying to be accepted. But back to our leading ladies. I'm telling you, here in this town, we have some phenomenal leading ladies. Um, from the president of William &  Mary is a leading lady, and we have president of our local hospital, Sentara, is now a leading lady. We have the president of the chamber; we have president of the local community college. We have so many leading ladies here, and we've decided that we're going to shed some light on that this weekend as well.

Phil Wagner

I love that. And I'm reminded that in those contexts where you may face additional barriers or obstacles to reaching success because of gender dynamics, because of racial dynamics, that there's something very impactful that's so necessary in that space, which is something you preach to, I think, and you preach so significantly or so regularly to the power of relationship and collaboration. And I'm hoping we can park there a bit. Because while you have done a lot right, I want to give you full credit for everything you've done. You've also spoken to how you had to link arms with others, you had to build relationship, you had to build collaborations, and you encourage other women to do that, too. Can we talk about relationships and collaborations and partnerships and the role that those play in your success?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Yeah, absolutely. When I say relationship, I call it relationship capital. Some people call it relationship currency. When I say that it is number one, a lot of people think, oh, cash is king. Yeah, cash is okay. Cash is king because we need cash for the world to go around. But I'm going to tell you, at the end of your lifespan, and I've always said this to my close friends, and that's why I show up for people, is at the end of my lifespan. If I'm lying in a hospital bed, I don't want a pile of cash lying around me. I want all my friends and family around me, rubbing my head, holding my hands, telling me that it's okay, I'm going to be okay, and that I can walk into the next phase of whatever the next life is. That's what I want. So it is so important that as you are climbing your ladder of success and as you are leading as a person, that you don't leave your relationships behind, that you look to build new relationships, and that you foster and nurture those relationships because it's not enough to just meet someone, exchange a business card and see them at a couple of meetings and networking events throughout the year. It takes it to another level. When you take that business card, and you actually send them an email, you actually make a phone call, you offer to go out to coffee with them, and you get to know that person because everybody behind every title, behind every degree we have, behind all the experience we have in our fields of study and the expertise that we walk around with is just a good old fashioned person. It's a human underneath all of that. So I would say that is one of the areas that is most neglected when you're thinking about work. Because think about it in a traditional, and again, this is navigating gender norms. We're going to link it back to that. In the traditional male roles of society is, you don't bring your emotions because this is what I was trained and taught back in the 80s as I was growing up in the work world; you don't bring your emotions to work. You don't get to know people. You don't tell people your business. You don't do that. It's work. There's a separation between church and state. There's work, and there's home. You don't get involved. We were told that for years. I'm in my fifties, so just to give you a little marker to my era. So we were told that for years, that you don't mix that. Now we're being told, okay, we need to have relationships because people are so distanced from one another. Now, we're being told to have relationships and collaborate. We can't do anything by ourselves. We're not in the world by ourselves. We've been in silos. Yes, we have. We really have been in silos for years because that's the way our society initially trained us. Now, and I see it sometimes in struggles, and I even struggle because I hate networking. I'm going to be honest with you. I love putting on functions for other people to network, but I don't really care for it myself, so I have to make myself do it. So now, when I go to an event that's not my event, I make a point to talk to two or three people, and then I say, and I write on the back of their business card where I met them at and the date. So I won't forget because I'll forget when I get to my office. And I make a point to send them an email the next day when I get back to the office to start forming a relationship. Otherwise, it won't happen. It will be. We'll be at the next networking event a year later, saying, hey, didn't I meet you at? Yeah, but you have to actually make those efforts to build relationships, and it's so important. Now let me tell you the reason that I don't feel like I'm so successful because I'm so brilliant. I feel like I am successful because of the relationships that I've had over the years. That even today, I called on somebody that knew somebody that called that person because being the somebody that I called, we have a relationship. We have built a relationship over the years. We have trusted each other with our brands. And that was such an easy doorway to meeting someone that I may have felt a little weird about meeting because I don't know them. So relationships, that's what relationships does for you. Relationships gets your name called in rooms that you're not in. Relationships is the difference between, okay, oh, you guys know about Ti'Juana Gholson does that. Okay, well, we don't know her, so we'll drop her in the bucket of if we need someone else, we'll call her. But if someone was in that room that had a relationship with Ti'Juana, oh, Ti'Juana, yes upstanding. Girl, you know she runs the maximum business boot camp every month, and she does a great community. Work with her. I mean, just going on and on about you, that relationship will get you noticed, and a lot of people don't understand that. That's why I harp on it, and that's why I preach that you've got to build relationships, and relationships can help you. Can lead to collaboration. Someone might call you to say, hey, I'm working on this project. Would you like to come and work with me? And then, when you need someone, you can call them back. So that's the power of relationships. And for me, it has been phenomenal. I've been called around so many tables because of relationships with someone else. I'm in a few collaborations right now, just doing good community work with other folks. I have this saying that I got from one of my friends. Many hands make light work. When you collaborate, and you bring people to the table, you're not trying to do everything by yourself, and you're not trying to be the whole community by yourself. You're going to find that there's so many other people that have same or similar heart to you, and if you come together, you can make miracles in a community. So, that's why I harp on the power of relationships and collaboration.

Phil Wagner

So powerful. It's so powerful. There's something you mentioned earlier, and I keep wanting to come back to it. This feels like the right opportunity because you talk about those feelings of self-doubt or insecurity or even just what we might call imposter syndrome. Have you ever struggled with those in your journey, specifically when it came to making those big business decisions and having to kind of do it afraid? And I'm wondering if you have any advice that you can pull from your own life for how to overcome that imposter syndrome and, specifically, how women can work to overcome those barriers so they can really succeed.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Yeah, I've definitely been in spaces and in places where I felt like, why am I here? And looking over my shoulder like, do I supposed to be here? And it took some time to get to the place where I felt like I should be here and I should be in that space. And I know for a lot of women because I talk to a lot of women and I have a lot of women friends. Believe it or not, I got a lot of friends. And we all have felt that way in spaces, especially when it's a situation where we're the first and that pressure of am I going to be good enough in this space and am I going to represent the rest of my women friends or the society of women? Am I going to represent us well? So there's definitely feelings of a sense of not being good enough that I've gone through and I've had to overcome. And sometimes, every now and then, it will rear its head up because I truly believe that life is a journey, not a destination. So we're always growing, and we're always learning. So one of the things that I had to do for myself, Phil, is I had to make sure that I educated myself. And I'm not just talking about institutionalized education because lifelong learning is lifelong. Even after you get your papers, I mean, your papers stood on the wall, but those four to six years, sometimes eight for some people, are condensed to that time. But life changes. The world changes, rules change, depending upon the industry you're in, laws change. And so you always have to constantly keep yourself well informed. And that's one of the ways for me that helps me to overcome insecurities, to be very informed on not only what I'm doing, but if someone calls me to a meeting like today, I was called to a meeting with Senator Warner to talk about tourism. Okay. Educate yourself on what's going on in the community before you show up to that meeting because somebody might ask you a question. You know what I mean? So, you might have an opportunity to share some input. So, for me, education and continuously educating myself has been one way. And then also, I just decided one day, and some of this have come with age, Phil, that I'm just going to be authentic. That's my superpower now. You know what I mean? I'm tired of being somebody else. I'm tired of dressing like somebody tells me to dress or the messages you get in media or you get in the magazines. And I'm tired of what do I like? Who am I? What makes my heart sing? Taking that time for myself as a human being to self-care. And I know this might sound, like, weird to be talking about. How do you overcome that? That is one of the ways that. Just to get to know who I am and how I want to represent myself. And I just found it's just easy to be authentically me because if I do anything else, it's too much rehearsal. It's not natural. So, if I was to encourage women today, it's just find out who you are, know what it is that you want to do. Because even I can even tell you in my earlier years, I got a whole degree in something that I didn't want to have a degree in because my mama was a nurse, and everybody else in my family are nurses, and I'm going to be a nurse. And I hated it. So that was the start of the feeling of not good enough. So, I had to go back to school and do what I wanted to do. You know what I mean? So it's challenging, but I would just encourage women to just be true to yourself, walk in truth and transparency, be authentic because that's where you're going to find your power. I don't know how else to be.

Phil Wagner

No, I love it. And I think your life is such a testament to that, living out life and living out sort of entrepreneurialism through that authentic lens. And it's worked for you, right? I mean, you staying true to yourself, that's resulted in positive gain, right?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Yeah, absolutely. I have this saying that I like to live my life out loud, authentically, with no apologies and no regret, because I don't want to one day wake up and I don't even know myself because I've been living my life from a script of someone else's life or what the norm says I should live life. I want to live my life authentically because, at the end of this thing, I don't want to have any regrets on did I do what I set out to do or did I do what I was put here to do. I don't want to have those regrets. I just don't want to have those regrets, Phil. I have some friends that are nurses that say that, and I have a friend that's a hospice nurse. And one of the things that she says that a lot of folks at the end of their term in life say that they wish they would have done that, especially people that worked hard and that worked a lot of hours, and that had such big lives, is that they wish they would have spent more time with family. I don't want to have that regret. So, I try to make sure that's a part of my self-care. First, taking care of myself, and knowing who I am authentically, and taking time, carving out time. I actually schedule time for myself, but I also schedule time for those that I love. And it sounds like you got to schedule time. Well, when you are doing a lot in life and in the world, in the community, and you feel like you're called to doing these things. Yeah, you have to schedule time. So there's times that I just totally unplug, and it's all about me. And then there's time I totally unplug. It's all about my family. Then there's times I totally unplug, and it's all about my friendship circles. Because again, relationships, you got to keep relationships. There's a saying it's lonely at the top. It's lonely at the top because most people don't keep and nurture their relationships. I want to be just as successful in my relationships as I am in my business.

Phil Wagner

Good. This is great. So I hear for you the advice that you're going to give to other people is keep those relationships close at hand. Schedule time for yourself. Self-care. Live life unapologetically. Any other tidbits or insights? As we wrap up this conversation, I'm thinking specifically to women, but maybe for all of us listening, the things that we can glean from your life to be more successful and to find the joy in those entrepreneurial endeavors.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Well, I'll tell you, these are tidbits, not just for women. I think men struggle in this area as well, especially when it comes to self-care, especially when it comes to making sure that you're okay. Entrepreneurs people say entrepreneurs get it done because entrepreneurs are typically folks that are hard workers. Work doesn't never. It never ends for an entrepreneur. Your mind is always on because you're always thinking about your business. So you definitely have to make sure that you balance that. And what does balance mean? It means something different for everybody. Everybody's life is their life, and you have to figure that out. So I encourage women and anyone that hears this to just sit with themselves and explore and discover. First of all, remember I said I was in a whole degree program that I didn't want to be in because I didn't know what my value was. I didn't know what I really wanted. So sit with yourself and explore what your value add. What value do you bring to the world? What comes to you naturally in your heart that you would do uninterrupted? Think about that. I would encourage them to do that. Going back to what I said, how I overcame a little bit of insecurity is after you find out what your value add, I would encourage them to explore how they can educate themselves to strengthen that value. And ask yourself, is what I'm doing now truly what I desire to do in life? Or did I choose this path based on some other element? Was it familiar family influence, or money chasing, or outside influence, like TV? I would explore why I do what I do. And that's the only way, in my opinion, that we can live our lives with no apologies and regrets because we've got to know why we are doing what we're doing, getting to the root of who we are. And then we add those other elements in there, like taking care of self, and nurturing your family, nurturing your friends. But first, we got to sit with ourselves. And that's the scariest place that I've found in life; is really exploring who you are. Because we have so many messages that have been told to us from so many people, from our families to our education system, to our teachers, to whoever that's been influential in our lives have, we've picked up all these messages. And a lot of times, we don't know exactly who we are and what value we add to our world and to our community. So, I would encourage people to start with yourself first. And if you start with yourself, then you can start adding all those other pieces in there. What's important to you? What is your theme of life? And don't forget to put yourself number one when it comes to self-care because there's nothing you can do to help anyone else if you don't have a full glass yourself.

Phil Wagner

I love that. Ti'Juana, this has been so insightful, and it's such a privilege to chat with you. I think my last question is, how can our listeners follow you? How can they support you? Where can they find you so that everybody listening can keep up with the amazing things that you're doing?

Ti'Juana Gholson

Awesome. Well, my name is Ti'Juana Gholson, and Ti'Juana is spelled just like the city in Mexico. Gholson has a h gholson, so it's tijuanagolson.com. You can find me, I believe, on the web page. You could even have a contact. And it'll go right to my email, but you can also find me on Facebook. I have an Instagram. But look, didn't I tell you I was in my 50s? We're a little slow to Instagram, but my grandkids say that Facebook is for old people. That's why I park at it over there with the old people. But yeah, so you can find me on social media, you can google my name, and you'll find me some kind of way. But hello@tijuanagholson.com will get you right to my email if you want to talk. And I answer. I answer my emails. I even answer my messenger, so you know, for good people. So there you have it.

Phil Wagner

Thank you, Ti'Juana. Such a privilege speaking with you. Thank you for the amazing work that you do and for letting us be a part of that. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. A true privilege chatting with you today.

Ti'Juana Gholson

Thank you so much.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

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Episode 52: December 18, 2023

Management's Legacy of Dehumanization: Tracing Modern Business Practices to Chattel Slavery

Today's guest is Linda Ridley. Linda has a background in corporate and investment banking with Wachovia and has served as the CEO of Edgar J. Ridley and Associates since 2009. She's also an academic, a faculty lecturer and professor at Hostos Community College and Graduate School in New York City. She trains managers worldwide to examine their behaviors by emphasizing the negative impact of symbols and symbolic behavior.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What is meant by critical management education
  • Why it's important to contextualize the past with modern business educational practices
  • Why critical race theory has been politically controversial
  • What a full curriculum of symptomatic leadership would look like
  • Why thought leaders of race and slavery are absent from business education
  • Why make the pedagogical shift to race education in the business world now
  • What are the concerns of teaching chattel slavery to business students
  • Where there is room for future scholarship at the intersection of slavery and modern management
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. There are so many things that I love about William & Mary, but one of the most significant reasons I love this institution is just how powerful our alumni thought leaders are. You really can't don a William & Mary Hoodie and walk anywhere without bumping into some of those change agents. And it was a wonderful encounter I had a few weeks ago when I met today's guest, someone who is an alumni but is also a profound change agent. I'm going to let her introduce herself in just a second, but I want to briefly note the voice you're about to hear is that of Linda Ridley. Linda has a background in corporate and investment banking with Wachovia and has served as the CEO of Edgar J. Ridley and Associates since 2009. She's also an academic and a faculty lecturer and professor at Hostess Community College and graduate school in New York City. Linda, it's an honor to host you here because this is kind of a homecoming in many ways. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and what you've done since you've left the halls of the Mason School of Business?

Linda Ridley

Hey. So happy to be here. Thank you for having me. It's interesting where I am now. I actually began my transition from Richmond, Virginia, to New York City while I was in the midst of final exams at William & Mary. So I'm literally surrounded by movers as I studied on an empty floor. Can you imagine that? So, I was in charge of operations for Wachovia at the time, and my brief was to expand the bank's footprint in New York. So I was traveling to New York City on Sundays, returning on Thursday nights for my weekend class at my EMBA class. So, I left the bank in 2009 when it merged with Wells Fargo. And so that's when I joined my husband's consulting firm, within which we implement a proprietary management concept invented by my husband, the symptomatic thought process. We train managers worldwide to examine their behaviors by emphasizing the negative impact of symbols and symbolic behavior. We then encourage a shift to symptomatic thought. This is seeing things as they really are, without added connotations. My husband, Edgar, introduced this concept at an international business conference in Ma. Street, the Netherlands, in the late 20th century, and he's published several books on the topic. So, with consulting now, I had a global audience. And for instance, one of my clients is the APO, the Asian productivity organization out of Tokyo, Japan. And that took me to Southeast Asia to train female entrepreneurs from ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines, et cetera. Then, shortly after I began consulting, I was invited to join CUNY, the City University of New York. So, I began teaching graduate students in organizational behavior and leadership. Keep in mind teaching was never in my plan, but the teaching piece was incredibly compatible with consulting. Clients love it when you tell them you're on faculty. So now I teach both graduate and undergraduate students in introductory business and management, as well as the work behavior. I actually developed a course on global diversity. CUNY commissioned me when I first started. So that was very interesting as well because I went in a different direction, because what I found teaching opened a can of worms. As I relayed the content to my students, I kept seeing gaps between this textbooks and what I knew to be true. Using that symptomatic thought process allows me to push the boundaries of the available research, and I realized I had something to say. So, my first foray into publishing was when I entered a competition for first-time case writers with the case center out of the UK. You're familiar with them? Yes. Okay. I was using their cases as well.

Phil Wagner

Yes.

Linda Ridley

So I won the competition. I was one of only three Americans 18 faculty worldwide, and I published a case. And I've been published frequently, including peer-reviewed articles as well as that business case study. And all of my research has been informed by the need to address the negative impact of symbolic decision-making with a shift to symptomatic thought, the need to see things as they really are. So, finally, fast forward. About five years ago, I decided that it would be interesting to obtain a doctorate to further my entrance into the academy, and my research trajectory stayed the same. I maintained my inquiry into the teaching gaps within business and management, and my emphasis was on the exclusion of chattel slavery. And I was able again to use the symptomatic thought process and critical management education as my framework. That's where I am right now.

Phil Wagner

That's such a robust history. Thanks for sharing that with us. And yes, that cited research. That's actually how I came into contact with the concept of symptomatic leadership. Your piece in higher education theory and practice takes that and translates it into the business education classroom. So wonderful work there. That really shows how this translates. Let's talk about that term that you just kind of tossed out there, Linda. You advocate for taking a critical management approach, an approach that challenges kind of the conventional narratives around development of capitalism. What do you mean by critical management? And why do you think that's the lens that we need right here, right now?

Linda Ridley

Well-critical management education is an area of study that challenges traditional management scholarship, and it encourages additional voices and points of view. Critical management education in itself it's not like a technique. It's not a method. It's a learning-centered pedagogy. So, when I look at my framework, for instance, when I decided to do a dissertation, I broke it up into three buckets: critical theory, critical management education, and that symptomatic thought process. And so, actually, when you look at critical theory, it leads you into critical management education, which it's aligning with that search for answers, and it's examining the unadulterated management research that explores the contribution of chattel slavery. So if we think about a lot of the extant research, I say extant, there's a tremendous amount of what I call marginalized research out there that is not being acknowledged. And critical management education allows us that pathway into looking at management theory. You may be familiar with works by Padoni, who looked at business schools and the challenges, especially after the 2009 financial crisis, and quite a bit of material out there, Bridgman out of Australia, that is questioning where we are with the MBA programs, with our pedagogy. And what is it we're telling students? A popular paper I'm fond of is one that talks about broken wind entering, where we query whether, when we get business students, whether or not we are working with a damaged goods, as it were. I actually am taking this a level lower than graduate education because I think when we start looking at what we tell undergraduate students, baseline, blank piece of paper, we start talking about efficiency, effectiveness, productivity, basic tenets. And when I determined just from reading Baptiste, Rodiger, Rosenthal I love her just reading that material, I questioned, why isn't this included? Why doesn't this link? And that's critical management education allows me to get there because it's a wide ranging area where you can just examine and pull apart. And I have to say there's been quite a bit of criticism about it because it leans towards Paula Fury and critical pedagogy. And there are many business theorists who are not particularly attuned with that. And that brings me to just the field of business generally is considered sacrosanct and so not really allowed to upset that apple cart.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, well, and I don't think it's just the field of business. I think it's the domain of politics. And we're certainly seeing felt pressure from legislative on highs that are really imposing, not regulations, but insights into the classroom that shape how we're even able to navigate terrain like this. I mean, you think about the current political rhetoric that is seeking to ban or limit or censor, particularly classroom discussions of race and history. So, with that in mind, your work kind of stands out here because you say, no, we have to, we have to confront, we have to acknowledge those past connections between slavery and modern business practices. But some might say that history can be divisive. Right. So why do you think it is so important that we not forget the past in shaping business education, even if it reveals, I don't know, uncomfortable or unflattering truths? Wouldn't ignoring or sanitizing that history ultimately be detrimental to their future leadership?

Linda Ridley

Absolutely. It is so incongruous to suggest that certain children would have their feelings hurt if we talked about certain things. We don't even consider the other side of the classroom. How do they feel when we don't talk about it? But I think, frankly, traditional approaches to diversity learning are remarkable in their consistent gaps when it comes to addressing historical inequities. Those historical inequities are avenues to understanding the future and what kind of opportunities there are for business. And I think, as you said, the current environment of changing demographics, not only domestically but globally, I think it indeed deserves a more focused approach to addressing this multicultural landscape. And, I mean, what's our new term now? Majority minority. I have problems with the term, but that's okay, as that majority-minority language takes on a different shape. We have, I think, ownership to change the narrative. So, I think it's essential that business instructors consider how to incorporate this conversation into their learning outcomes. And if we're going to impact future generations, they're going to be leading the business world. And I think we have ownership over that. We have to widen our worldview beyond the traditional textbooks, which, frankly, only have a passing or marginal mention to diversity and inclusion. I think in order to be effective, we have to understand the impact of exclusion in all its forms, including gender discrimination, for instance. You may be familiar with Shayla Haynes. She suggests that although there's a relative comfort in discussing gender issues in the classroom, for instance, the gap remains as we display this inherent reluctance and uneasiness surrounding topics of race and ethnic discrimination. We'll talk about gender, but we might not want to talk about race and ethnic discrimination. So, there's an urgency within the current business environment. It's really palpable. And companies are desperate for competent managers that can tackle those thorny ethical discussions we see all over. Companies are hiring so called D&I leadership, which once they get in place and they try to do something, board of trustees, board of directors up, we don't want to do that. And they're out the door. What's going on there? So I think we need some education around that. We got some thorny ethical issues within leadership within human resources. And so we need to change these views. We don't like to say it out loud, but there are basic assumptions that managers have leaders of color and employees of color, and it translates into the business environment. And so I think it requires a saturation into the curriculum to equip business students with the tools they need to overcome what we've called a popular term is abstract liberalism by decision-makers. It's that notion that racism is colorblind. Eduardo Baniela talks about it, but that's something that we have to really drive home. And you see it in the popular discourse, and you wonder, did they read a book? And I see it replicated as we look at management. When you talk about why, look at chattel slavery versus, and maybe you and I will talk about this versus current day management. I frankly see the gaps all over the place.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Have you found anything that helps us figure out why this is seemingly so controversial? When all of the hullabaloo came out about critical race theory? Right. And I point, like three, four, five years ago, particularly, I'm shocked because, as someone who was trained in critical theory, the foundations of critical race theory are largely uncontroversial. They center conversations on race and racism, certainly, but all they seek to do is challenge dominant ideology tell the right story. They centralize experiential knowledge. It invites an interdisciplinary perspective. It commits to justice all things that a principled leader should do. Why do you perceive this as so controversial, then?

Linda Ridley

You know, I think that I have an advantage over some, I think, having been a student of Edgar Ridley, because Edgar points out the impact of symbols and symbolic thinking on behavior. And if you go backwards, I mean, you're talking about John Dewey. You're familiar with John Dewey. John Dewey said the most important thing that we can focus on is symbols. And so if you look at the reaction, the behaviors of the respondents who criticize critical race theory, first of all, we all know it's a political ploy. It's an easy trope. Most of the people who criticize it can't even spell it don't know what it means. So we have to be clear about that. And if you go back in the political history of this country, there have always been tropes, whether it was Willie Horton with Ronald Reagan, I mean, on and on. So, the important thing for educators is first to be well-versed in the background of what has happened in this country. And that's one of the challenges that I've encountered in my research because the material is so marginalized, you have to take a symptomatic approach. Reading the material symptomally, I don't know if you're familiar with Eric Williams. I mean, how far back is Eric Williams? And he was so disappointed he gave up and went into politics in the Caribbean. If you look at things we don't talk about, such as Paul Robeson, and go back in history, we don't talk about Patrice Lumumba and the participation of the CIA and Eisenhower; those things, if they're not in the books, you can't link any of that. So then, when we start talking about business, which I again say is a sacrosanct area, I mean, you wouldn't even mention critical race theory in the business conference room, but how does that connect? And there, we can see the challenges in terms of promotion, pipeline, hiring in the first place, the affirmative action that takes place with white males in business. So we don't even acknowledge, I have yet to see acknowledge, for instance, with the Supreme Court ruling of dismantling affirmative action, no acknowledgment of the work of Rodiger that looks at affirmative action, as he calls it, when it was white. I don't know if you're familiar with that.

Phil Wagner

I am, I am, yeah. We actually talked about this in class, so yeah.

Linda Ridley

So, you know, when I teach my first-year business students about redlining, they knew nothing about redlining. However, they live in the Bronx, and they know that there are certain neighborhoods you can't move to, but they don't know why. And so we have these, for instance, neighborhoods in Manhattan, in Staten Island, there's areas where people encounter a lot of problems if they try to live there. All of that is business. And that's what I tell my students. And so they need to have a connection with, in my opinion, how we treat people today. Where did that come from? And if you easily look at chattel slavery, where productivity was not accomplished without brutality, it brings us to present day. So it's a long answer to your question in terms of. I think it's a joke, critical race theory. Another one is the war on woke. But what is woke again? These are pejoratives, I say, and a proxy for the racism that people bring to the table.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think they're a flimsy trope that it is then easy to dismantle. To your point, though, I know you were recently at one of the discussions that we hosted on the Tulsa race massacre, for instance. Those historical moments that are often wiped from the pages of history, and certainly, history books set precedent for the problems and interactions, and social inequities that we're experiencing now. So, I think if ever there's a place to have a conversation on how important the past is in having conversations about the future, it's certainly here at William & Mary. I want to go back because you mentioned one of my favorite scholars, which is Rosenthal. Caitlin Rosenthal's work is just fantastic. Her book, accounting for slavery, was so eye-opening to me. If you've never read and you're listening, go grab a copy of Caitlin's book. But there are other scholars who, like you, are sort of building a case. Maybe it's in management scholarship. Maybe it's just in public policy. Maybe it's, you know, thought leadership writ large sort of building this case. If we're to take all of that advice and then build, let's say, a management curricula or a set of curricular practices where we are acknowledging aspects of slavery plantation management, what do you think that can or should look like?

Linda Ridley

Oh, I think a full curriculum on symptomatic leadership would be very powerful, where we include all of the scholarship that is not typically acknowledged. I mean, when you're talking about. I just mentioned a few. You mentioned Rosenthal. I mentioned Baptiste, Rodiger. Certainly, I think, in my opinion, the premier work that undergirds this is the golden apple, changing the structure of civilization, which is by Edgar Ridley. Which is a complete body of work that gives the reader all of the touch points that they need to appreciate how damaging symbolic thought is because that's the question that you asked about critical race theory. All of that is symbolic thought. You're adding something where there is no place for it. I think people generally we don't walk around thinking about symbols, and am I thinking symbolically we don't do that? And Ridley does a very good job of pointing out what that looks like. I teach that in my courses, for instance, and students, it's a beauty to see when students take it and can apply it right away because graduate students already have a job, they're already working, they know how to implement it. And so I think it works very well. Then you talk about, I just mentioned Rodiger. Where we go, have writers who have gone back in history and told a true story. Again, this is all a symptomal approach. And when you look at, I even move over. I think this course would have to be multidisciplinary, by the way. Caitlin Rosenthal talks about that because what is she teaching? The history of capitalism? She had to take it into another area. And she talks about how you've got to bring together different disciplines in order for it to be effective. Edward Whitmont he was a psychiatrist who founded the Carl Jung Institute in New York City. He passed not too long ago, but he talks about the world of myth has its own laws and its own reality. And I think a course like this would have to have a strong focus on demythologization. And I could literally sit here and write out the syllabus right now in terms of what I think. Because when you talk about Whitmont he talks about the mistruth is only accessible to the symbolic view. And then you've got people like Terrence Deacon, he's at UCLA, and he looks at symbolic thought from the standpoint of neurology. So there's a lot of different areas. And I already mentioned people like Padoni, which whom I love, Haynes and Cummings, and Bridgman. There's so much work out there, and I'm always appalled that we don't see this in the business classroom. So how much time do you have? I could really go on because we're talking about what I would say is a naturalistic inquiry, where we're looking at what's out there. When you take economics and people like Thomas Shapiro, I don't see Thomas Shapiro taught. And here's the thing. If I sign up for a class in global capitalism or history of capitalism, maybe I'll see some of these things. But if it's that sacrosanct area of business and industry, you will not see it. And that's my argument. That's my rub, as it were. And so, if Travis Kalanick is a horrible manager, where did he learn it from? Where did he learn that you can talk to people any kind of way and treat them any kind of way because you started your company? And even people who shall remain nameless, where did they learn that they could build businesses in New York City and treat people like animals and not pay them? And so I keep coming back to, why talk about slavery? Well, it's over with. You can see the through line. Not to mention, we haven't even touched on modern-day slavery, an entirely separate area of study which I don't think should be separate. But there's a burgeoning look now at human trafficking, at supply chain issues, and slavery. Slavery is slavery, but we compartmentalize it, which impacts the learning. And we still end up with our MBAs coming in feeling, how can I say, entitled? Because that mythology has not been dissected. I know Harvard has a program with their MBAs where they try to really drive home the ethical piece because they don't want to leave completely ruined. So there's an effort to try to instill ethics in them, but I'm not so sure how successful it is.

Phil Wagner

So tell me, then, the benefits are there, right? But let's put them out front and center. Why does this benefit students? How does this benefit students? I mean, they're more distant than ever, approximately, from slavery as we conceive of it, or Jim Crow. Why this generation? Why now? Why make this pedagogical shift now?

Linda Ridley

And I would push back a little bit and say proximal distance is a fallacy because all we have to look at is something like the prison industrial complex, for instance. Brian Stevenson talks about slavery gave America a fear of black people, symbolic behavior, and a taste for violent punishment. And so we're still there, right? We've gone from chattel slavery to convict leasing to modern-day slavery. And, as we know, as a financial investment. Back to the business classroom. Prisons are a billion-dollar industry, one of the more attractive vehicles for solid return. You want to make some money, invest in prisons. So why is it significance? The significance is if we link business and management to early 20th-century industrialization, we expose that fallacy. The tenets that we learn were honed so much earlier than Henry Ford. They were honed in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is what Rosenthal and others like that are telling us. That cruelty, that brutality, that coercion, which was commonplace, these are practices to elicit work results. That's working with an enslaved population there. And today's workplace is replete with similar examples. So, I mean, you got pregnant women at Walmart who have to file a lawsuit before they can use the restroom. What's that about? You've got meatpacking workers in North Dakota during a COVID pandemic who have to work no matter what because America has to have its meat. You've got investment banking analysts who have to work 100 hours a week in order to pass muster, and they drop dead. These are actual stories. I'm not making it up. Plus, I've been there, and I've seen it. That's a dark side, and it's always one of a hazing. Well, I went through it, so you have to go through it, too. But there is, in my opinion, a very direct link to how we have treated the development of capital from the very beginning.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. You allude to some of the ways in which coercive labor management practices under slavery have etched their way into today's business model. So it seems that this would just be such an easy ask like an invitation for faculty to pick up these realities integrate them into their curriculum. But we know that's not the case. You've done a little study on this, too, that looks at pockets of resistance or barriers that you have found among business faculty in integrating discussions of slavery into business courses. What are those?

Linda Ridley

Oh, boy. I had some very rich dialogs with business faculty when I did my study, and a lot of different things rose to the surface. I can probably put it in four buckets: what I call a mindfulness on the part of faculty, their concern for students, how would they deliver the content and just general innovation. So each of those buckets, I had deeper sub-themes. So, if you look at faculty being mindful about the topic of chattel slavery, it came up when we talked about peeling back the layers. Some faculty are very transparent. They just say I don't know anything about it. I have a lack of knowledge. I admit it. Okay, I'm clueless. And as we talk about it, they might move along a continuum and say, okay, I can see where it might make some sense, but that mindfulness might lead to their needing to be trained. And so when you talk about training, that's a resistance where we've got to put faculties maybe in an in-service environment, so we can extend that potential for them to embrace the teaching of the topic. But another area of faculty mindfulness is a fear of controversy. Many faculty have discomfort around teaching this topic for the very reasons you asked the question. They are afraid of the political climate. They even are afraid of university institutional reaction. Am I going to lose my job? Will I lose my tenure? Will I not be put in for tenure? So you have that challenge. So, there's a lot of qualifiers that I found that faculty would want to be in place before they would teach the topic. And then, when I looked at that bucket called a concern for students, I found that there was a juxtaposition between them inspiring students to work through their discomfort in order to learn and backing away from making students uncomfortable altogether. And so, I had some faculty express concern to me that students might feel challenged by the material and also that students might challenge them, and especially MBA students, going back to my observation about MBA students feeling entitled. So there were anxieties around that some faculty suggested maybe we should give students more agency and let them help us design the course. If we're going to talk about chattel slavery, maybe that's a way to manage their anxieties. And some others just right out said, if I'm teaching MBA students, we all know that they are the cash register, as it were, for graduate schools, and so we don't want to alienate them at all. And so I would be a little reluctant to put this into the space. And again, I mentioned earlier that we are speaking of teaching in a business environment, as opposed to if someone signed up for the history of capitalism, their mindset is already there. Oh, you're going to take me there? But if I sign up for business, why are you taking me there? And so that is the challenge that I have encountered, is that we have to get faculty to wrap their minds around it, because many even said, oh, I wouldn't touch that with a ten-foot pole. So I recognize that this is something that we have to do some workaround. Another area of student concern was just a level of student awareness. We found that faculty considered that many students who identify as white, for instance, they might be oblivious to the topic of chattel slavery due to their lack of exposure to groups of different backgrounds. But a very interesting finding I came upon was there are many students, especially from the African continent, that might be unfamiliar with slavery or might have opinions around slavery. And so, there might even be a tension between American-born African-American students and students from the African continent. So that might get in the way of the learning process, and so that needed to be managed. And so I already mentioned another sub-theme which has to do with student superiority. Because of the fact that faculty think that MBAs can bring an assertiveness in the classroom, it can be intimidating to faculty, especially young faculty members who are trying to build for tenure. So they have a concern around teaching errors and pushing back with those students. And so, again, that's a struggle. And an interesting observation. When I talked to a lot of faculty who identify as white, they would tell me, well, whatever, I would have an easier time of it than you would. So, they acknowledge that faculty of color might struggle to have this topic put into their classroom. So that's some of the things I found. Something else I looked at was how would you even deliver this content to students. So we looked at one of the themes that came up was something we called rhetorical strategy. I like that a lot. Where several faculty said you just got to blend it into the curriculum, so they don't quite notice what's hitting them. And so there had to be these games that you have to play in order to make this topic palatable for students. And when you're doing that, faculty have to be very mindful about the political climate, what's going on right now. You've just mentioned it several times, not only nationally but globally, I say, and certainly institutionally. And so faculty have to, I think, over-prepare to handle the potential classroom divisions. They really do.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Say that. I would validate that I teach these concepts in my classes, and I would validate everything you say about MBA students, not because they are egomaniacal maniacs. Often, those programs are very large, and so you have 100 to 125 or more very diverse people in one room limited time to engage. So it is overwhelming. And you can't possibly know the history of everything everywhere all the time. And so you're putting yourself in a vulnerable position. I will tell you one of the things I've found is just the importance of positioning yourself not as the know-it-all but as the question-asker. That's rhetorical strategy and action, right? In our classes with MBA students, I don't prescribe any moral doctrination whatsoever. You're welcome to walk in and walk out thinking what you'd like, but that's not how business strategy works. And so we do a case, for instance, on General Mills at the onset of the murder of George Floyd. And if you're General Mills, your company policy was to never comment on specific incidences like that. You put your money where your mouth is; you have scholarship programs and breakfasts and all sorts of stuff, but you don't comment well on May of 2020. When that breaks out, this one feels different. Okay. Well, no matter how you feel, morally or otherwise, about the police, about George Floyd, you're a business leader with profits, livelihoods, economic vitality on the line. You need to make a strategic decision. This is why you need that knowledge, right? This factors in whether you buy it all or not. You're doing yourself a disservice by not factoring in that history to inform our present reality. And so I think, to your point, Linda, your work just resonates so deeply with me, just asking the right questions and not prescribing the answers. It's so inspiring to watch students work that out with each other.

Linda Ridley

And you're right. And I think 125 students in the classroom, you've got to assign reading to get them salivating for this topic so that before they get there, and you said it, they've got to face reality. I think when we talk about, one of the other findings I came up with was scaffolding. You've got to build up layers to get them where you need them to be. And again, that's extra labor on the part of faculty. And anytime you have a topic that's considered racialized, you're running into faculty needing to have that skill set. I'm sure you're familiar with Derald Sue out of Columbia.

Phil Wagner

Yes.

Linda Ridley

And the need to build a racial fluency around topics. And once faculty have that comfort level, they can move to another level. I don't think that they can do it without being innovative.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I will tell you, students are hungry for this, and I do mean all students. One of the things I hope my legacy is that every student I teach feels seen, valued, heard, and like they belong. No questions. I have seen in the classroom that you can have productive but also very difficult conversations on this content as it applies here now with whatever the labels are, be they conservative or liberal or black or white. This is a conversation for everybody. And I have found maybe it's a William & Mary thing because we are a special institution. Students really want to know how to grapple with the difficult nuances. Nobody's looking for you to hand down a moral doctrine. I have been encouraged by watching our students just struggle with the nuance here and recognize the value of this. And so, if we are a little bit skeptical about how faculty might approach, let me tell you where to place our optimism, and that is in how students and the next generation of leaders how they are grappling with this. It has been very heartening to watch.

Linda Ridley

It is.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I want to ask one more question. As our time winds to a close here, let's just talk about the future. Obviously, you're going to keep working in this area, and I'm excited to continue to follow that work. I hope our listeners are as well. Where do you see room for, let's just say, future scholarship writ large at the intersection of sort of the legacy of slavery and modern management? What questions should we continue to keep asking so we can all contribute to this conversation?

Linda Ridley

Well, I think we really need to continue underscoring the significance of that link between chattel slavery and critical social science. I mentioned earlier, I think this work takes us into a multidisciplinary space where we can really have some good partnerships. And I think we need to look at the gaps that are in business and management teaching. I think we have a strong need for a change in the curriculum. Again, it shouldn't have to be that we have to shift disciplines in order to be effective in teaching this.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Linda Ridley

We teach this within business and management. So you're talking about textbooks. Textbooks essentially have not changed in 30 years. It's still the same textbook next edition. And so we might add some faces, we might add some business quote unquote, success stories, but we don't make that link. And I think that's critical. I think this discussion around fluency in managing classroom racial discourse. As you said, it can be hard, but when you've got the fluency, you can manage it as a faculty member, and you've got to develop that fluency. So we see a lot of that training taking place. I think that training is deeper than just DEI, which that's another podcast altogether. That's, again, it's become symbolic, but I think that there's a lot of work we can do and I think that that happens. Like you say, I don't talk to a lot of people who've read Caitlin Rosenthal, you see? So I mean, once you've got that information, you can't unread it. Now, what do you do with it? So when we talk about learning about the impact of symbols and the beauty of sentinel reading, which we get from an Edgar Ridley, and we look at Edward Whitmont in terms of symbols, and we look at works such as Eduardo Bonita and then moving further into Thomas Shapiro. I don't talk to a lot of faculty, even use Thomas Shapiro or Rodiger. So when I share my reference list with people, my reading list and I'm always amazed at where were you? And so I think one of the challenges we have going forward is looking at education less as these siloed areas that are not as effective. And where can we bring those disciplines together to overcome what I call that myth in pedagogy? Going all the way back to Paula Fury. Okay. And breaking it out critically and determining where we can impact a student for liberation. I mean, that's in a nutshell.

Phil Wagner

Oh, that's so good, Linda. I could talk to you all day, and I'm delighted that the conversation, as we both know, will not end on this podcast. Thankful to be connected to you. It's so inspiring to see the work that you're doing. I think we often over-inflate the value of so much but always under-inflate the value of what happens in the classroom. That is where change agents are sculpted. And so I'm thankful that you are out there doing just that. And you've lended some of your expertise over the last hour to our podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for the work you do. This was stellar.

Linda Ridley

Thank you.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Marika Messager
Marika MessagerEpisode 51: December 4, 2023
Conscious DEI Leadership

Marika Messager

Episode 51: December 4, 2023

Conscious DEI Leadership

Here at the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, we spend a lot of time grappling with the question of: What does it mean to produce business graduates who make a broader societal impact? What does it mean to be about business for the greater social good? And how do you do that? Today's guest has a few ideas and brings a great research-oriented perspective to this conversation. She says it all comes back to consciousness. Today's guest is Marika Messager, a consciousness researcher, teacher, advisor, a widely regarded public speaker, and CEO and Founder of consciousleadership.org.

Podcast (audio)

Marika Messager: Conscious DEI Leadership TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • Marika's journey towards her current role in the DEI space
  • The definition and meaning behind Conscious Leadership
  • How to think about one's own truths and their helpfulness in one's DEI journey
  • How one's core values can influence their conscious leadership
  • How consciousness helps one in the context of change management and navigating uncertainty
  • Who is conscious leadership for
  • What will the benefits of conscious leadership be in the long-term
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work here in the Mason School of Business. We spend a lot of time grappling with the question of what does it mean to produce business graduates who make a broader societal impact. What does it mean to be about business for the greater social good, and how do you do that? Today's guest has a few ideas and brings a great research-oriented perspective to this conversation. Her answer, she says it all comes back to consciousness. I'm joined today by Marika Messager, and this German guy really struggles with his French. Dignity is a core value of mine, so I want to give her a chance to correct my pronunciation there as well. Merika is a consciousness researcher, teacher, advisor. She's a widely regarded public speaker and non-exec board member. She is the CEO and founder of consciousleadership.org, which helps provide tools for leaders toolkit. To help them stay sharp, relevant, confident, and elevated to achieve their full consciousness for express business outcomes and broader societal impact. I'm so excited to chat with you here today, taking our conversation in quite a different direction. I'm excited to learn. Welcome Merika. Thanks for being here with us today. Why don't we kick off by allowing you to tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and what you do?

Marika Messager

Sure. Hi Phil, and thank you for having me. So, I'm going to pronounce my name in French. It's Marika Messager, and I'm the founder of consciousleadership.org, not consciousness leadership. Right. So, who am I? I am 47, and I have 25 years of business background behind me. I started as an equity sales and an equity manager. So I've been on the trading for 15 years and at the end I was head of equities for Europe and Middle East for a big French bank. And I started working on myself when I was 27. So I really saw the impact because I had, like, family problems, and I had to, and I really saw as I was doing this work on myself, that I was becoming a better leader, a better manager, that I was becoming a better sales. So I really, very early on saw the link between self, like, basically, I understood that success is an inside job. And the people, my colleagues were also noticing this inside of me. And when I was, let's say, at the end of 2020, my company was going through a big restructuration, and my boss said to me, Marika, your job is dead at the end of the year, but I love you, I'll find you another one. You want to be global head of research. And because I have this self-discovery of what actually self-development meant, I was like, oh my God, I just want to explore that. There is so much that I don't know around self-development. So, I actually took the opportunity to stop and train into the disciplines that I thought were very effective in my own self-development. So I trained as an integral coach for a year, but I also train as a clinical hypnotherapist, as a yoga teacher, as a mindfulness teacher. And also, I've been initiated in two lineages of Native American healers, shamans in Mexico and in Brazil. So, that really gave me an understanding of what it means to honor one's potential. What are the different levers that one has? And one of them that is key to our work is that we are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual bodies. And we need to understand all of these and work on all of these in order to elevate our potential. And so I founded consciousleadership.org ten years ago with really the vision that I wanted to support individuals and organizations, honor their credential and thrive, but also build a community of conscious leaders who together understand that we can create systemic change and we can make a better future for all of us. And that thanks to the private sector, we can have an impact through business in how we work, in how we relate, and who we are as a society. So that's me. So we help individuals, organizations through various programs that I'm sure we'll touch upon. And right now, there is something very interesting that we are launching, which is the Conscious Library, which is actually a tool for organizations that makes consciousness available to all employees and coaching, mentoring, teachings available to all employees online, on-demand, and all of that. Because I truly believe that those tools are needed at every level of society and an organization. So, I'm very excited about the change that this can create.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, lots going on in your world. Where I hope to start is just unpacking terminology a little bit, you know, Peter Drucker reminds us that sometimes it's the stuff that is seemingly simple, almost to the point of being naive, that we don't kind of check and couch and unpack a little bit. So when you say conscious leadership or even just consciousness, is that being present? Is that the same thing as emotional intelligence? Is it mindfulness? Are those all related? Can we unpack that terminology a little bit? What do you mean?

Marika Messager

Sure. So, all of what you said and more. Consciousness really is truth, right? So I am true with myself, so I know who I am. I am aware of the programming that I have received from my childhood, from society, from my culture, from my religion. And I am able to actually detect who I really am, what is my truth. And I'm able to walk this path of truth of being truthful to who I am and being truthful with others and relating in truth as well. So, it requires self-awareness, it requires emotional intelligence, it requires system intelligence, spiritual intelligence. And it's like an ever-ascending spiral of growth because the more we discover ourselves and the more we peel away layers that are not serving us, the more we elevate our consciousness.

Phil Wagner

I love this. And I have a question right? As somebody who wants to develop more in this area, are all truths valid or helpful in that context? My truth is I grew up in a very religious community very specific, strict, detailed set of ideological and social values handed down to me. Do I carry those forward and say, these are my truths? Even though that might get in the way of me building authentic community and relationship with people across other faith communities, across political or ideological boundaries? I know that's something I've unpacked in my own journey. So, how do we think about truths and their resonance and their helpfulness?

Marika Messager

Yeah. So first, I'm going to answer the first bit, which is very simple, which is not all truth are meant to be shared. Right? Before we share our truth, we have to ask ourselves, is it true? Is it necessary? Is it useful? Is it kind? Right? So all those questions.

Phil Wagner

The same things I teach my kids, right? So, it really does come back to the simple details.

Marika Messager

But then your question had another dimension to it, which is, what is my truth beyond what I have received? And is my truth limiting me or allowing me to expand? And am I conscious of that? And how do I respond to that? Right? And for me, ultimately, truth is also choice, right? And once you know that, you've unpacked this within yourself, and you're like, I have certain beliefs that are coming from my environment, and I know where they're coming from. And now I have a choice to make. Do I want to continue to embrace them? Because yeah, it might have been a program I have received, but I am aligned with those truths. They are in line with my values. I think that they support me to do the right thing. I enjoy the community of people that actually are aligned with that. So, I have the right to choose to stay within that truth. Or I can also decide that, in a certain way, that truth is limiting me. And I can decide to open myself to challenging my beliefs or being more open and receptive to people having other beliefs. But it's a choice. But it's a choice that is conscious.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I love that. And we talk a lot about emotional fragility here. The College of William & Mary we're entering our 330th year. We have been around a long time, and I often joke we are the institution that has educated everybody from Jefferson to John Stewart. We are not an emotionally fragile place. And so we know that challenging our beliefs only makes us better leaders, better humans, better people. I can't help but find the connection between truth and value systems in your work, you know, even if you think from a religious lens or a political lens or a social lens, what you choose to accept as truth then guides you into the development framework, the mental model for your values. So, how does that value creation process factor in on your end in your work on consciousness, leading from a value-driven standpoint?

Marika Messager

Yeah, and thank you for that question because your value system is your inner compass, in my perspective. Right. So we actually have a training on that. It's like, what are my core values? What do I stand for? Is it integrity, transparency, excellence, or generosity? Right. And can I identify three or five core values that really feel real and meaningful to me? And then, because you were asking, how do we work on our consciousness, actually, core values are a tool to do so. If you identify five core values, then you can also define them. What do they mean for you? Because they mean everything for different people. And you would be surprised. One day, I interviewed a woman who one of her core values was honesty. And I said, what does it mean to you? And she said, well, it means that as long as you have a good intention, you can lie. I was like, okay, that's not my definition of honesty. But that was interesting. And then I said, how much am I aligned with that value within myself in my life? Right. So, if integrity is one of them, are there places within your life, personal, professional, social within yourself, where actually you are not in integrity? Because misalignment of core values is a place of suffering automatically. So it's really very important to align with that. And same if you are joining an organization, a university, or a community, if your core values are not aligned with that of the other entity, it's not going to function. There will be friction. The way how you're going to handle things are going to be different or even opposites because, at the core, the values are not aligned.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I feel that so deeply. I think about my own value systems. In our family unit, we talk a lot about values. We have a family value system that we've developed together. And some of our core values, some of my core values, dignity, giving honor. We talked about dignity when we opened this call. I said, all right, dignity is the core value of mine. Do you please tell me how to pronounce your name? So I give you that dignity, and I still botched it, and I'm so sorry. But dignity, honor, excellence, belonging, and authenticity those are key to me to our family here. And I often feel that I grew up in the church, and so the old church folks will call it conviction. When I am out of line with those values, it really does cause me to step back and say, wait, something's going on in my life. So, I feel that as a leader, I see the value in leading from those values. This podcast and much of our work here focuses on the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging enterprise. And I think there are a lot of well-intentioned leaders who want to do something of impact in that space, maximize their human capital, build organizational cultures that are defined by belonging and excellence and authenticity and showing up as your true selves, but they don't often know where to start and how to do that. Does your work suggest starting with your own personal values is what it takes to get us to that sort of conscious organizational space as it relates to DEI?

Marika Messager

Well, values are a tool. It's a powerful tool, but it's just a tool. Our view is kind of more realistic and a bigger vision. What's your question?

Phil Wagner

Good question. Welcome to what it's like to be in one of my classes where I'm just like, well, these words are falling out. I'm just thinking, how can I use your work if I am one of those well-intentioned leaders? And I'm not well prepared in the DEI space, but I know that stakeholder engagement demands it, my employees want it. Research shows me time and time again my employees are more likely to give of themselves, more to stick with me, longer to feel satisfied at work if I am intentional in that focus. But I don't know what to do because I was trained in finance, I'm an accountant. I happen to rise through the ranks because I'm excellent. But I don't know. I didn't go to school for sociology or communications or any of those other spaces where this is developed. So, does your work give me tools for that toolkit to help build that?

Marika Messager

Yeah, it does. That's exactly why we are launching the Conscious Library. I've been in the consciousness, I mean, researching consciousness for more than 20 years, but really actively coaching, mentoring, consulting with individuals and organizations for ten years. And what I've seen is that right now, at the level of the organization, really, there is support for leaders, right? If you want to develop yourself, your leadership leaders will get one-on-one coaching. It's expensive, I do know because I do coach them and we get some results, but they are on their own with some tools. And there is a common understanding with all the people that I work with, or that we pitch to, that when it comes to middle management, we have a bit of nothing's happening, right? So people know that middle managers needs to be grown by the organization in order to build great senior leaders, but we're not really willing to pay for them for like a one-on-one coaching program. And then we have everybody who is below the middle management who barely they don't get anything, really. They might have a yoga class a month, right? But that's barely it. And so I've observed that, and I also observed that in the organizations I've worked with, I've been really being asked by some leaders who I was working with to go and check within the organization because they had an issue at the director's level. And some organizations have had the opportunity to actually implement conscious leadership within the whole organization through middle managers, doing online programs, doing some workshops for the whole organization, some off-site. And I really saw that, actually, this is how you transform a culture. You need some early adopters, some ambassadors, you need some leaders who are embodying the culture, but you need everyone to have access to the tools. And so the conscious library is really a solution to that because we have kind of repackaged everything that we've done over the last ten years, which is 50 trainings of 2 hours, 100 guided meditation, loads of resources in a library that is very accessible to everyone. So we have 34 questions that everyone would encounter in your day-to-day work or day-to-day life, such as how do I navigate difficult conversations? How do I set up boundaries? How do I improve my self-confidence? How do I prepare for an important presentation? How do I create more purpose in my work? Right? And all those questions you can access. And you have a short video of me explaining you how to do that. You have some key takeaways, but you also have some clear path on how to do that, which means that it's going to be something where everyone, every day at work, kind of arrives to the office with one challenge, right? Today, I have a difficult meeting, and I know I have to prepare myself, and I might be a bit short because I haven't done it before or whatever. Right? And you go on the library and like, oh my God, I can watch a ten-minute video that's going to tell me the step-by-step pieces that I need to do. And I also have some guidance that's going to tell me, okay, if I need to work specifically on my self-confidence, I have a two-hour training I can do. So it really gives people some solutions to their challenges, but also the opportunity to develop themselves so that they become the person that they need to become in order to create the success.

Phil Wagner

I love this because I think you're preparing and developing whole leaders, not just leaders who have the tools they need to respond in the moment, not just be reactive, but to be proactive in thinking sort of ahead of the curve. I do want to talk a little bit about that reactivity again in this space, just the societal impact space. It might be DEI, but it might be climate and sustainability. It might be the intersection of politics and business, which we like to think doesn't exist, but it absolutely does. What those variables tell us is that this is a dynamic time of change. The world and the world of work, I often say, seem to be spinning more rapidly than ever before. How does consciousness help us in the context of change management and navigating uncertainty? Can you speak to that a little bit?

Marika Messager

Yeah, of course. Consciousness is a technology, right? And it's a technology that really allows us to master our vibration, right? Our emotional vibration, who I am. And in terms of emotions right, we teach emotional agility and emotional intelligence, and there is a whole spectrum of emotions that one can go through. But really, we only have two polarities. We have fear, and we have love. Right? And you can't be in one of the two polarities at the same time. You are either at the frequency of fear or either at the frequency of love. And consciousness really teaches you to master a higher frequency within yourself. This is really what it does. Right? And so, in organizations, what we all know is that change is constant, right? We live in a world that is VUCA, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. And everything changes all the time, which is very stressful, which creates mental health issues and all of that. Right? And what is the main emotion, the main negative emotion that happens when change is there? It's fear, right? We are scared of change. We resist change. And so consciousness really allows you to build the strong self within you in terms of all the different types of intelligence so that you can master fear and embrace change and therefore, be part of the change rather than shying away from it or resisting it. Right? So that's the big picture. But really, consciousness helps you navigate into this VUCA world. We have to change the way we are because the world has changed so much. We can't function the way we used to. So, we have to be aware of our mental health. We have to be aware of our emotional health. We have to be aware of our physical health, even spiritual health, which is how much am I aligned with my purpose? So consciousness helps you do all of that and therefore really is a solution to function when there is barely any certainty.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I appreciate that, and there's a lot there. And I have a kind of a strange question as a follow-up, but I think your work speaks to this a little bit, too. I'm wondering who consciousness is for. And so I was groomed in communication studies, and so I've done a lot of communications training, I've done a lot of public speaking coaching. And I've always told people for many years communication is always for the audience because it's not successful if the audience doesn't buy your message, right? And I have changed that in recent years because, yes, it is audience-focused. It is for others. But in this space, I also recognize that communication can be cathartic, it can be healing, it can be empowering. It is also for you. So is consciousness. Is it something for leaders who haven't reached their full potential? Is it for others? How do you think about who this is sort of guided, who this benefits the most?

Marika Messager

Everyone. So when I first started, I was mainly mentoring C-level executives or senior managing directors in finance because I was coming from this world, and it's a very specific environment. So when you know it, you have a unique selling point. Right? And so I really saw how consciousness could support and become a better person, really, and have a stronger impact. But then I was like, okay, I see that. But we have a gap, right? Because the young leaders, the next generation leaders, they are not inspired at all by our leaders, right? To another extent, they don't want to be them; they don't want to be us. Right? So it's a question of how do we leverage on the wisdom that has been acquired by the leaders of today while still inspiring the leaders of tomorrow to actually make their mark. But we don't want to lose that wisdom, and we need to create a bridge. So then I created some program for young generations, like 15 to 27 years old, that are actually quite similar to what I teach to the senior leaders. But it's a very different response because younger adults young adults have much less of a baggage and much less of a program, right? So, the work to actually allow them to allow that potential is much quicker. They are like sponges, so they are much more receptive. There is no resistance. They are really keen to receive those tools and to be equipped to create the most successful life that they want. So it's for them as well. And I've worked with people who were not leaders in organizations who are leaders in their own lives. Mothers are leaders of their family, and the tools do work very well for them as well. So it's really for everybody who understands that success, any type of success, is an inside job and also understands that consciousness allows you to really do the right thing for you, for everyone, your community, your colleagues, your stakeholders. So, it's a tool that is a force for good. So if that speaks to you, it's going to be for you.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I appreciate that. That's great insight. So, do you have a case study? Do you have a success story? Can you tell us? Can you show us? Is the proof in the pudding that, no, this actually does something? This isn't just a cool idea. These aren't just neat tools. This actually works.

Marika Messager

Yeah, I have plenty of case studies. I come from finance, so I am very aware that you can't change what you can't measure. So I like to measure things, actually. If some people here want to hear, like full case studies, you can go on the results page of our website. We've got 15 videos. But what kind of case studies would you like? Like an organization, a senior leader, a young leader?

Phil Wagner

I don't know. Pick the one you're most proud of. Right. Like, as somebody who's really helmed this content, you stand and beam with pride over which one of those? Any of them?

Marika Messager

A lot of them. A lot of them. It's difficult, maybe because you have an audience of young leaders. I'm going to talk about one of them. So, I'm going to talk about Elliot, who was 19 when he started working with us. And he did our Aspire program, which is for the young leaders. And so he was at a stage in his life where he was in Amsterdam. He had started a university there, and this was just after lockdown, and it's been really hard, especially for that generation. But so he was not happy at university. He felt like it was not aligned with what he wanted to do really deeply. He felt that his community in Amsterdam of friends were not very dynamic, so he didn't feel like he belonged there. And he was finding himself kind of not honoring his potential, more like yeah, not thriving, not being driven and dynamic and passionate. And he had just broken up with his girlfriend that he really liked. Right. And so when he started to do Aspire, he made loads of changes. But really, he managed to understand that he was the creator of his life and that, therefore, it was his responsibility to make some changes. And so he looked at different universities and he did all the process that one has to do in order to be accepted. And he got accepted in a university in the States that he loves. He got much more disciplined with himself and went back to the gym and understand that this was building strength and resilience. He also made some changes. He was working in a restaurant to earn some money, and he was quite frustrated because he was working too much and then not seeing his friends too much. So, he managed to recreate more balance in his life in order to be more fulfilled by his life. And he gathered some very precious tools on how to navigate difficult conversations, how to relate, how to understand potentially how to level up his emotional intelligence. And he managed to get back with his girlfriend. So it was really great outcomes and solving the frustrations that he had as he was starting the program.

Phil Wagner

There's a great case study. Thanks. I appreciate that. And I know you can share many more, and I appreciate you guiding us back to resources as we start to wind to a conclusion. It's a great case that speaks to what this does in the here and now. But what about over the long haul? What about over the long term? What are the benefits of this work in a long-term capacity? What will this continue to do for leaders, and does it just impact their leadership? Or are there personal benefits, health, wellness? You mentioned those here as well. I appreciate your nod to yoga. You'll be very pleased that I just started hot yoga, which has been really transformative. I'm going to give a shout-out to my colleague, Dr. Katherine Guthrie, who is a master yogi and also my dear colleague here in the Mason School of Business. But does this help us in all areas beyond leadership as well? I know your work speaks to that, so I'm teeing you up to get a home ride here, but can you speak to that impact?

Marika Messager

Definitely, and you know that's the beauty of the technology is that you're working on yourself. You know, you are transforming yourself, and that's going to radiate in all aspects of your life. It's like the butterfly effect, right? So all our clients find themselves being more successful in their career, but also in their love life, in their social life, and within themselves, right? Because they are clear, they are able to express their emotions. They are able to have the conversations express their truth, and therefore, their relationships are much more harmonious. And when they cannot get harmonious, they understand that it's time to walk different paths, right? So it really creates a sense of harmony and balance within individuals and in their lives and also have them really understand that true success always has a dimension of service or contribution or positive impact. So they also start to think at that level, with that level of perspective, right? So, it also changes the way they relate with organizations, stakeholders, but also with the environment. So it's a holistic transformation, it's a holistic approach to well-being.

Phil Wagner

I love that, and I appreciate you unpacking your work for us. The final question I have for you today is, can you guide our listeners? How can they best support you? How can they grow in their own conscious leadership? Speak to our listeners and tell them how to support your work.

Marika Messager

Oh, thank you. Well, we share a lot of educational and informative, and inspiring content on Instagram at Marika Messager, on LinkedIn at Marika Messager, and we also have an amazing monthly digest where we share some tools. So, if you want to know more about that, I would be very happy to connect with you on Socials, or you can also go on our website, consciousleadership.org, and subscribe to our newsletter. You also can find some free meditations a master class around how success is an inside job. So, we have plenty of resources for you to start experiencing the transformation that consciousness can create. So you can share that, connect with me like that. And at any point, you can reach out to us through the website. We have a contact form there. Yeah, and very keen as well. I do a lot of speaking, so we have some talks that are more geared toward consciousness or conscious leadership and the impact for organization. So if you want to have a chat about that, I'll be delighted. And also, when it comes to the Conscious Library, we are creating some partnerships with people in order to have the biggest impact in organization. So, if this is something that you resonate with, I'm very happy also to have a conversation.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. Well, I appreciate this conversation today on Conscious Leadership. Marika, thank you so much for your contributions, and thanks for joining us.

Marika Messager

Thank you. It was a pleasure. Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Dr. Elias Zerhouni
Dr. Elias ZerhouniEpisode 50: November 21, 2022
From an Algerian Village to Director of the NIH: One Immigrant's Leadership Story

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Episode 50: November 21, 2022

From an Algerian Village to Director of the NIH: One Immigrant's Leadership Story

Host Phil Wagner fills in for Ken White on this special crossover episode of Leadership & Business and Diversity Goes to Work. Our guest today is Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who has had an incredibly inspiring story of pursuing the American dream while never forgetting his roots. Born in a small village in Algeria, he came to America in his 20s with only a few dollars to his name. Yet through hard work and mentors who saw his potential, he rose to become the director of the world's largest biomedical research agency, the National Institute of Health. He pioneered breakthroughs in medical imaging, including MRI techniques still used today. His scientific innovation combined with leadership skills earned him roles like Department Chair at Johns Hopkins, but few expected a boy from a small Algerian village could someday lead the NIH and its multi-billion dollar budget. We are honored to have Dr. Zerhouni - a radiologist, researcher, and the former director of the NIH - on the podcast today.

Podcast (audio)

Dr. Elias Zerhouni: From an Algerian Village to Director of the NIH: One Immigrant's Leadership Story TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Dr. Zerhouni's immigrant experience shaped his worldview as a leader
  • What the journey was like from an Algerian village to the NIH
  • Dr. Zerhouni's role in standardizing imaging scanners
  • What characteristics helped Dr. Zerhouni land such impressive career roles
  • What backlash, if any, Dr. Zerhouni encountered as NIH director in a post-9/11 America
  • The challenges Dr. Zerhouni has faced during his leadership journey
  • What is the role of mentorship in leadership careers
  • What the role of AI will be in the future of medical science
  •  
Transcript

Female Voice

From William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This is Leadership & Business, produced by the William & Mary School of Business and its MBA program. Offered in four formats: the full-time, the part-time, the online, and the executive MBA. For more information, visit wm.edu.

Phil Wagner

Welcome to a special crossover episode of Leadership & Business and Diversity Goes to Work. If you're a regular Leadership & Business listener, my name is Phil Wagner, host of the Mason School's Diversity Goes to Work podcast. I'm stepping in temporarily to fill in for Ken White on this special crossover episode. Our guest today has had an incredibly inspiring story of pursuing the American dream while never forgetting his roots. Born in a small village in Algeria, he came to America in his 20s with only a few dollars to his name. Yet through hard work and mentors who saw his potential, he rose to become the director of the world's largest biomedical research agency, the NIH. Our guest pioneered breakthroughs in medical imaging, including MRI techniques still used today. His scientific innovation, combined with leadership skill, earned him roles like department chair at John Hopkins in his 40s. But few expected a boy from a small Algerian village could someday lead the NIH and its multibillion-dollar budget. His diverse background gave him the global mindset needed to advance the NIH mission and promote better health worldwide. He championed science diplomacy to build bridges between nations and ensured doors were open for emerging leaders of all backgrounds. The trajectory of his life says much about the boundless opportunities America provides to those who dare to dream. I'm honored to have with us today Dr. Elias Zerhouni, radiologist researcher and former director of the National Institutes of Health. Elias, thank you so much for being here. It's an honor to have you on our podcast.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Thank you very much. And it's an honor for me, too, Phil.

Phil Wagner

So, I want to waste no time today. I'm hoping that we might unpack the many different elements of your story. So, let's start at the beginning. You were born in Algeria and moved to the US in your 20s. How did that immigrant experience shape your worldview and your approach to leadership?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

I think it's fundamental, actually, to who I am and what I became. Right. If you go back, the reason I came is because I was pursuing the potential of doing research in a way that hadn't been done before. My father was a teacher of mathematics and physics, and so I was interested in math and physics first. Medicine came in later, and actually, my father opposed that. He said he thought medicine was for less than stellar people, that they just learned by rote and they wrote prescriptions, and it wasn't really challenging. He said you'll get bored. And indeed, I was getting bored after a couple of years because you had to learn all the muscles and all that until somebody showed me a CAT scan, the first CAT scan obtained in the world. It was a radiologist, a mentor. And he told me, he said, you know, this is the future, this is how imaging is going to be. We're going to be able to peek inside the human body without having to open it sort of image. That really was the fuse, if you will. And then, I decided that I was going to pursue radiology and imaging because it was a disjunction of math and physics and biology and medicine. But to do that, you had to come to the United States. I mean, in those days, very few countries, the UK and the US, had that, and that was the foundation. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, frankly, because when you are sort of taking a chance like this, you know you're leaving, you don't know where you're arriving, and so that was the beginning, if you will, of my career.

Phil Wagner

So you have a very vast, and I would say, complex leadership story from being a medical consultant to the Reagan administration in your 30s to ultimately leading the NIH. Talk to us a little bit about your journey from the University of Algiers to the NIH. Can you give our listeners a little taste of that leadership story?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Sure. First of all, when I came, I asked my mentors again. The dean of our med school had been at the NIH, and he knew folks here in the US. And he said, well if you want to do what you are proposing to do, you need to get an exam equivalency so that you can be certified in the US. So I studied that, and then I succeeded, and then he said, well, would you like to go? I said tell me which schools are the best? And he said Harvard, Hopkins. I said, well if you can find me something one of those. I was arrogant at the time. I'll go, and we called the Dean at Hopkins, who he knew, and the Dean of Hopkins was a radiologist. And he also believed that this was a new era that mathematics and physics would converge with medical imaging and medicine in general. So what he heard what I was wanting to do, this converging of physical sciences and medical sciences, oh yeah, bring him over. So that's how I got into the Hopkins program, not as a resident, just as a visiting researcher, if you will. So that's what started it. And then when I got there very quickly, I mean the environment was exceptional, people were not like, you know, saying, well he's an immigrant, what does he know? I spoke, barely spoke English, but in my first interactions, it was very obvious that they were excited by the concept of research that would really combine these things because radiology has always been at the edge of biology and physics with radiations and so on. And so over a few month period, I got to know everyone, and I decided that, yeah, I wanted to stay, but there were no positions. And so, I looked for positions around the US. I was going to go to Loma Linda. I had a job offer. Then, when I told my mentors there, they say, I'm leaving. I got a job at Loma Linda. They said, wait a minute, don't rush. Turns out there was one resident at the time who really didn't like the specialty had spent a year and he wanted to go into dermatology. So he left, and they gave me his slot. And so that is how I became a resident in radiology at Johns Hopkins. But then, I was doing research on pulmonary nodules. One of the things that I always followed is the sense that you can learn more by quantitating a biological phenomenon than by observing it. And medicine in those days was more observational qualitative, and I wanted to bring numbers. And my chairman, Stan Siegelman, Dr. Siegelman, he had the idea that measuring calcium in tumors would be a good thing because it turns out that previous studies had shown that calcium, when it's high, is usually a benign disease, not cancer. And so we started to do that, and one thing led to another. We were successful, except that we were successful at Hopkins. Then, when people try to replicate that, they couldn't. And when that happened, obviously, people always wonder if you massage the data or something like that, and we know we didn't. So I studied why that was. And what I found was that in those days, scanners were not standardized, and people forgot that the image you looked at was really the result of a computation. And the computations were different from company to company to company, which means that they give you different numbers, and you couldn't really make a diagnosis because using a scanner from company A wouldn't give you the same results of company B. And so I solved that problem by creating what we call a reference phantom. And the idea that with computerized imaging, which was becoming standard, whether CT, MRI, ultrasound, the world was going to need a way to standardize, right? So it's like having a meter and a mile or a kilometer and a mile. You need to agree on the measure, right? Well, but you need to provide that measure. And that's what I did. Now, you mentioned I was a consultant of the White House. I was not a political consultant. I was a medical consultant because it turns out President Reagan had pulmonary nodules, which were found after he was operated. And I got called in because, at that time, I was the only one who could use that method to determine whether they're benign or malignant. So, I was asked to be a medical consultant. I met the president. I studied, I examined him, and so on, and told him that it was benign, that they need to reoperate again. And that was really the beginning, if you will, of this research career. And I was coming back to Hopkins at the time and essentially continued to follow the same theme quantitative biology. Bring numbers, bring rigor, bring real data to medicine. That was the trend, and I applied that in many ways.

Phil Wagner

You mentioned earlier you said I was arrogant at the time, but I've listened to your story a lot, particularly over the last few weeks, and I think it's one defined by such humility. And I've heard you talk openly about how you very clearly didn't have the expected pedigree of someone who would eventually find their way into the White House and serve multiple administrations. What do you think it ultimately was that landed you such impressive roles in your career?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Right. That's a good point. You don't have that phenomenon as much today as you did then. But in those days, if you were what they called a foreign medical graduate, meaning you have graduated from a foreign university, foreign medical school, and then you got your equivalency, people thought you were inferior, that you didn't have the same level of education, skills, capabilities as a US trained. And that was part of the aura at the time to see we have the best of the best medical system. There was a little bit of arrogance behind that, but then the consequence was that when they looked at you, they, you know, there will be a glass ceiling. You'll make it to assistant professor, associate, maybe professor, but that's it. No more because you're a foreign medical graduate, and it's indeed in your Pet degree. You don't have, like, Harvard or the big Ivy leagues. I mean, University of Algiers, who knows where that is? I mean, they thought it was out of a movie or something. So, you really had to establish your credibility on the ground. And that's where, you know, it really happened because as I was there, I worked hard. I asked a lot of questions. If you ask my professors and Stan Siegelman, somebody asked him what distinguished him from the others you had. He said well, you would never be satisfied by just what we told him. He said, Why you're telling why is that that way instead of oh, I get it. Okay. I understand. The bone is broken. All right, fine. It fixes itself this way. Why? What happens, really, at the molecular level to repair a bone? I mean, can you imagine the mechanism of self-repair?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Do you imagine if you had a motor that self-repaired itself? Isn't that fantastic? And so this feeling of the world is fantastic. Nature is fantastic. You observe it, and you see things that we cannot do ourselves. We cannot engineer ourselves. A larvae that becomes a butterfly. So the complete amazement at the discoveries that we made inside the human body, both with imaging and trying to coupled with the curiosity, really led to people saying, well, this guy's a little different. And that's where it started.

Phil Wagner

Your tenure at the NIH is notable for a variety of reasons, but I also want to draw our attention back to the timeline. So we're talking the Bush administration, and we're talking post-911 America. And so I'm wondering, during that time, as you rose into this position of prominence, did you face any backlash in that era? We see a lot of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim backlash. Here, you are leading a very well-known and well-regarded entity. Did those collide in any way that were complicated for you?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Well, first of all, you know, I have to give credit to Johns Hopkins University. I mean, it's a merit-driven university, and I never really got the direct feeling of, except for what I told you before, if you're a foreign medical graduate, there was, you could know there was a little perception difference there, and people saying, well, it's just not as good. My English got better very quickly, so that was obviously an advantage. But I never felt that at Hopkins, although I felt that it was there. Nobody would come to you and say anything. And when it came time to be promoted to professor, there was no discussion. It didn't matter. What counted is, what did you do? What did you publish? And the rest of it was irrelevant. And so that was the culture that I came from. Hopkins has this culture of merits first, and then when the chairmanship of the department was in question, I always thought I would never make it because of pedigree reasons and so on, but it didn't bother the search committee, and I became that and quickly after that became the executive vice dean, all of that because I brought a different perspective. And I'll tell you what the different perspective was. When I started my research in MRI, I realized that I couldn't do it as just a physician-scientist, and I was a biomedical engineering associate if you will. But what happened was I realized quickly that if you didn't have a multidisciplinary approach to science and your lab was not multidisciplinary, you wouldn't succeed. So I went to the dean. I said I want to recruit a physicist. People raised their hand say, oh, my God, a physicist in the medical school? Are you kidding? We're not doing atomic research here. And I said, no, you don't understand. But without a physicist, we won't be able to understand what is it we're seeing with MRI. So my first recruit was actually a physicist, and then I recruited an engineer in radio waves, and then a biologist in cancer, and then another type of mechanical engineer and electronic engineer that could do signals. So, pretty soon, my lab at Hopkins was unique in the sense that it combined multiple disciplines in one lab, and that had never been done before. So, it was a model that actually attracted a lot of attention because it was successful. We very quickly became one of the most granted lab. We received grants from National Science Foundation and NIH, and so there was a lot of interest in that. And I kept saying, you know, you're not going to be number one again unless you combine molecular biology with mathematics, with physics, with computer science, but nobody knew how to do it. I didn't know it was not possible because, at the time, I didn't really appreciate that the basic science departments and the physics department, the math department wanted to control their faculty. They want to select them. They want to tell them what to do and so on. And I sort of broke that mold. So I broke the barriers between them by just basically saying, don't worry about the salary, we'll take care of that, and bringing them into one lab. Now, I'm telling you that story because that's the fundamental reason I became NIH director. So I pushed a new way of doing research at Hopkins, which, you know, as soon as I became chair, they had seen that model. It had been reported actually in science as the model of the future. And I practiced it, and then I extended it to the whole Medical School as the executive vice dean, and I was dean for research. And if you look back, what happened was that I was more looking at the system than any one project in particular. So, I have this sort of systems engineering mind. And I said the system requires you to break barriers between departments and disciplines. And we created these institutes that had no departmental barriers. They were multidisciplinary by nature, and it became very successful. I think that fast forward. After a few years of that, I got noticed I was elected to the National Academy of Medicine, and I was known as somebody who broke barriers, both as an immigrant, I broke barriers, I broke the glass ceiling, but more importantly, I broke transverse barriers and glued people together. And that's what they thought NIH needed at the time because NIH had 27 institutes and centers, none of which talking to each other. So I can tell you the details of the story, but that's the fundamental thread that led to that connection.

Phil Wagner

So clearly, some big wins mapped throughout that story. What are the biggest accomplishments or initiatives that you're particularly proud of from your tenure at the NIH?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Well, first of all, you have to understand what was happening there because your question was related to 911 and the period of time. Right. And at the time, there was a lot of concern in terms of security. You remember there was an anthrax event where they distributed anthrax around, and it turned out not to be a foreign operation but a soldier from the US laboratories. So, it was clear that at the time, the country and Congress was supportive of NIH. They actually agreed to double the budget, and George Bush, the president, also was a big supporter. At the time, I, like you, thought that I'll never make it. I mean, you know, Muslim, Arab, there's no way. I got interviewed by the White House by a fellow Ed Moy was the presidential personnel. And they had had my name by people who said, you should look into this guy. And the president of our university, Bill Brody, was asked, do you have anybody? And he said, oh, I don't want to tell you his name because it's like giving my arm away, but this is who you should talk to. And so when they talked to me after the first interview, they had a very clear idea of what the problem was at the NIH. It was basically a confederacy. It was not a federation. There were lots of things that needed to be done that no institute wanted to do because they say, wait a minute, that's not my business. I'm focused on my budget, with my diseases, and so on. So lack of coordination and lack of synergy, if you will. And I had noticed that because what you don't mention, and that is important, is that in 1996, I was asked by the director of the National Cancer Institute to write a strategic plan for imaging for cancer. And NIH has a bureaucracy. And I said, no, I'm not doing that. And Rick Klausner was his name, and he was a young, very aggressive, very smart scientist. He called me back. He said, you know, nobody turns me down. Why are you turning me? He said because I've seen that we do work for you guys. You put in the drawer, you never do anything about it. And he said, no, I'm the new director. I'm different. I said, okay, well, let's make a deal. If you're different, I just want you promise me to do the following. If I put a plan together, you have two options. You can say yes, or you can say no, but you cannot tell me what you all always say maybe I don't want any maybes. So that was the conversation that I did work, and I told him I said, I don't want a typical plan made by cancer specialists. I want a multidisciplinary team, which is my mode of operation at the time. And so we did the plan, and he loved it, and he put in the resources. It really transformed the way imaging is done for cancer from molecule to men. But then, as part of that, he said, I'd like you to be on my advisory council. So I end up on the advisory council at the National Cancer Institute in 1996 seven, something like that. I sat there, and I started to know the inside, the NIH from the inside. That led to a second step, which also is important in the story because relationships play a huge role in what happens to you. You don't plan, but it does drive the decision that the relationship was the following: Harold Varmus Dr. Varmus, who had become the president of Memorial Sloan Kettering, who was the outgoing director of the NIH, was asking someone to review his imaging programs. So I did. And as part of that, he was happy. He said, well, why don't you become a member of my advisory, so remember, I was on the advisory council of the National Cancer Institute. I was on the advisory council of the former NIH director with his, and then all of a sudden, the White House calls in and says, oh, we'd like you to consider this job. Well, I wasn't unprepared. It wasn't coming out of the blue. People knew me, and I knew them. And that the conversation immediately related not to who you are, what you do, what's your politics. I was independent. I was neither independent, or I mean, Republican or Democrat. So I was completely out of left field choice, right immigrant, not even born here, so on. No, I mean, it was completely out of character for selection. The problem is the conversation led to a convergence of thoughts that said he's thinking systems. He's not thinking his specialty. So that drove the conversation. Then, at the end, I said, but aren't you worried? I mean, I'm not the pedigree you want. He said, look, President Bush, as long as you're an American in good standing, it doesn't matter who you are, what your relation is, and I was shocked. I was really he said, oh, don't worry. If you make it, we'll back you. So that was it. So when you ask about, obviously, discrimination and lack of diversity and so on, I personally did not experience that, although it's there, there's no question. But I didn't because of factors that I described to you. And in other words, you had something unique that was not available; otherwise, you see things from a different way. The system needs a change. And that's when my contributions to NIH started. From a different point of view.

Phil Wagner

Your story is one defined by so many wins. Not just wins for your career, but wins that have changed the lives, livelihoods, health, longevity of, I mean, millions. Is your story one of victory and victory alone? I mean, what are some of the challenges that you have faced or faced during that time that might help our listeners as they find themselves configuring their leadership story?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

So, first of all, I don't think there's a little bit of hubris in what you're saying, changing the world and life. Who can do that? The second is it was always driven by observations in medicine that told me this is accepted, but it's not acceptable. So, for example, my first thing was to look at these people who came in with a nodule in the lung that you saw an X-ray, and they would get operated. I mean, major surgery. I mean, Thoracotomy, which is opening of the chest, is not benign. And yet you realize that a third of them or more had benign disease that didn't need to be operated. So, it was accepted. But to me, it was not acceptable. Right. And that's what drove the first project if you will. The second message there is that you try to do something, and then you realize that the entrenched patterns of behavior oppose it. So, anytime you try to change, you had a resistance. The problem was, how do you overcome that resistance? Right. And then I was lucky to meet Bruce Holbrook, who was an accountant, and he said, well if the people don't want to change, create your own startup company and convince them. Well, it was bad advice because we almost went bankrupt trying to sell the technology to the big companies. Why? Because the big companies said, look, our main customers are the surgeons, and what you're asking us to do is to prevent surgery. That doesn't make a lot of market sense. And sure enough, there was a lot of resistance to it. So then I realized very quickly and learned that, yeah, you can see that something is accepted. You think it's unacceptable, you find a solution to it. That solution is rejected. And that made me understand that you cannot be just a specialist in your field. You also have to understand the context around your field. And when you talk about wins, that's the secret sauce to wins. Not just be good at what you do, but understand what you do within the context of the times.

Phil Wagner

That's good. You talked about relationships just a few moments ago. You said relationships often define what happened to you. Can you talk to us a little bit about mentorship? The mentorship that you received as you were growing your career, or the mentorship that you've now given and doled to others, developing future leaders? Talk to us about the role of mentorship in careers like yours.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

That's a very great question. I didn't know how important it was until later. I get it now, but I didn't then. And you look back, and you say, how did it work? And I tell the students that there is a pattern to that, and that is that to really be good leader and innovator and bring new things, you need more than just knowing your specialty, your discipline. Right. You need connectivity. It's like what I call the balance T.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

The letter T that has a horizontal bar and a vertical bar. The two have to be equal because if you just have a vertical and not a lot of horizontal, you're basically a nerd in your specialty, and you connect to no one. If you just talk, talk, and connect to everybody, like a good cocktail conversationalist, you know, a lot of people, a lot of things, but you have nothing to contribute. And so that concept of the balanced T is really what underlies, in my view. The advice I give to students that you got to grow that. Now, why is that? I'll give you an example. So Paul Wheeler was a radiologist who was at Johns Hopkins, and he believed that you cannot be a good physician scientist unless you're a good physician. And then he came went to me one day and he said, let's go read some films. I said, I'm tired. I got to go. Listen, you know what the difference is between a great pilot and not so great pilot? I said no. He said, do you think a pilot who has 40 hours of practice is as good as the one that does 1000 hours? No, obviously not. And the one that does 1000, is he better than the one who does 10,000? No, obviously not. So, okay, let's go. Let's go get 10,000 films at 100,000. So he was teaching you that fundamentally, you need to be good at your game. Your vertical of the T had to be really solid. Otherwise, you didn't have the right to talk. So he taught you that hard fact that at Hopkins, at least, you know, you had to be a good doctor before anything else. So that's mentoring number one, right? And then we had another Bob Gaylor, who was very wise, and he understood the tensions between the interests of different departments and different so he was more like a wise man. And so you talked to that person, and he said, well, don't push. If you push, you're going to get a pushback. And those conversations were really important because you can be an innovator. But if you innovate against people and you don't understand, then you really don't place your innovation in the right place. Networking is also important because it opens new world. So I always tell students, look, 50% of the people you know should be around what you do, but 50% should be completely different. So I have one of my best friends, an accountant. I have friends who are basically artists and friends who are completely out of medicine and kept them for years from childhood to today. So I think nurturing your connectivity, your horizontal bar, is as essential as anything else, but you can't do it by being passive. In other words, mentoring. People say, oh, well, somebody put me under their wing. Listen, mentor; good mentors are busy. They don't have time to go and look you up and put, oh, come in, come it's not a cafeteria plan. You go and pick the mentor you think is attractive to you resonates with you, and you work at it. So it's as big a work from the mentee than it is from the mentor.

Phil Wagner

Let's go and lean into that vertical bar for our final question here. Let's nerd out just a second because you're someone who I think is uniquely qualified to speak to the next generation of medical innovation. So, where do you think medical science is leading us? There's a lot of cause to be concerned if you're a human living right here, right now. You've got wars and rumors of wars. You've got ChatGPT and Generative AI seemingly taking over the world and our jobs. Is there a case for hope as it relates to where medical science is taking us? What do you think?

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

I don't think there's been as much breakthrough discoveries and advances in medicine as there has been last 25 years. I mean, that's just not mince words. I don't think we've ever seen something, the wave of innovation that we've seen the past 25 years. When I became the NIH director, I assembled a 300 scientists and said what is the roadmap for medical research in the 21st century? And if you ask me so, what did you do at the NIH? That's what I did. I reset. It was like a reset button. And 300 people came, Nobel Prizes, great scientists. And I asked them a simple question. I said what is it that the science needs to see done that none of the institutes of NIH is doing but that the NIH has to do? And through those conversations, what appeared was a few concepts that really are underlying what you call medical sciences of today. One was computation and computational capabilities and quantitative capabilities, and the ability to have larger data sets. Okay, so data sciences. And the reason for that is because people were saying biology is more complex than we thought it was. In 1970, President Nixon said war on cancer. Everybody was waiting for silver bullets to come and cure cancer, right? But it wasn't the case. Cancer is not a disease, single disease. It's like 2000 diseases, different ways, different molecular arrangements that make the cancer cell grow. So that complexity was awesome and at the same time, frightening. And so people said we need to unravel the complexity of molecular pathways of disease. And you realize that a disease was not just due to one cause. When you look at cancer or inflammatory disease, it's due to multiple things. And then, when you treat them, you treat them with a combination of drugs because you don't really modify it otherwise. So that emerged, and that posed the question what exactly should medical sciences be in the 21st century. So when you come to that, you then go back to your question and say what did we need to do? We needed to do the blueprint, what's the code, what's the genetic code? So the Human Genome Project, which finished in 2003 to complete the and then, we said yeah, but that's not enough. You need to understand the DNA, but you need to understand the RNA. So whole field of research was put into RNA, and we invested to understand the behavior of RNA, and oh, wait a minute, that's not enough. RNA is only there to code and make proteins. Okay, so what about proteins? So, a whole field of research was invested in what we call proteomics. And what you've seen in each one of these fields, the technology that was needed progressed. And so people today, I would say there is no separation between science and technology. You can't really explore the complexity of science or biological systems without an advance in technology. And so this concept of convergence, of physical sciences, engineering, and biological sciences, is what's driving medical sciences today. Let me give you one example that blew my mind away, frankly. It's a company called Alpha Fold Two. It's not a company. The company is called DeepMind. If you recall, there was these people; these young guys were playing with algorithms that would beat the chess champion, and then they divinely made a game called AlphaGo. AlphaGo was for the game of Go, which is mathematically the most complex game played by humans. And over a period of few weeks, they beat the world champion. And then Google was really amazed. So they bought this company, and one of the scientists, John Jumpers, had really worked on the fundamental problem of protein structure. What I mean by that is everything you have in your body, all the functions that the life undertakes, is related to the shape of proteins and their interactions. Okay? But, we had no idea about how to deduct the shape of a protein from its gene sequence. So we had the human genome, but we didn't know how that translated into shapes. Very fundamental problem. Not new. It's been around for 80 years. And we use crystallography with X-rays and then Tomography, all kinds of methods, magnetic resonance to try to deduct the shape of proteins. These folks came in out of left field. They were not even doctors or physicians or biologists. They came out of mathematics, and they said, well, give us all the known structures which had been studied over 60 years, thousands and thousands of them. They put them into their computer, which is an AI computer with a neural network. And so from that, they started to deduct the roles. And each year, we had a championship where we would provide unknown structure, I mean, unknown structures. And we provide a sequence, and we say, okay, figure out the structure. By then, by 2017, 18, 19, we were able to do 20% of that, and 80% we couldn't. Until these folks came in their first year, they got 40% correct. And then, two years later, with Alpha Fold Two, which was their improved, they got 85% correct. Now, going from 20% to 85% is the equivalent of 200 years of research with the old methods. Not only that but this year, they gave all of their structures, 2 million structures, to the European Molecular Biology Lab, publicly accessible. Now, there's not a single lab that I know that is not using this methodology. I work on antibodies on multispecific antibodies today in my lab. And I tell you, you go, and you basically use AlphaFold to sort of define where your antibody is docking on your target protein. It saves you months and months and gives you insight that you wouldn't have otherwise. So, to answer your question, scale of research is going to be bigger because it's complex. So, data is going to be much bigger. Depth of understanding of the atomic interactions has to grid bigger. But more importantly, we got to understand the disease at the population level, not just the individual, and that is made possible by data sciences. So I think a marriage of complex biology that need to be very specific at the atomic level, at the individual level, at the population level, is what's really going forward. The last frontier is brain sciences. And to me, that's the frontier of the century is the brain and how neurons are amazingly working together. I mean, you look at your child, and in a period of months, they do things that no machine in the world does by itself, self-assembly, if you will, of skills. And how does that happen? Well, what is the miracle of that? So to me, I think we need to continue is to continuously be inspired by nature. There's no smarter teacher than nature itself.

Phil Wagner

Fantastic. Well, what a rich conversation this has been. Clearly, pulling from a rich life and legacy. Elias, thank you. I appreciate all of the insights that you've given and how you've really walked out a commitment to being a T-shaped leader, something that resonates deeply here in these halls in the Mason School of Business. So, thanks for a wonderful conversation.

Dr. Elias Zerhouni

Thank you, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

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 Heather Hansen
Heather HansenEpisode 49: November 20, 2023
"But what about my accent?"

Heather Hansen

Episode 49: November 20, 2023

"But what about my accent?"

As our workplaces grow increasingly global and interconnected, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment to re-evaluate one of the most potent yet overlooked aspects of DEI: Language and human communication. We often hear that language is power, but today, we're going to be looking at language as a tool. A tool of empowerment. Our guest argues that language is more than just a means of expression. It's a bridge, allowing us to transverse cultural divides, challenge biases, and foster truly inclusive spaces. In her work, she seeks to break down linguistic barriers and challenge the often micro inequalities that stand in the way of truly diverse and inclusive workspaces. Heather Hansen helps global professionals show up, speak up, and inspire action in a changing world.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Heather's TEDx talk came about
  • What does it mean to have "bad English"
  • The importance of accent recognition vs accent reduction
  • What it takes to be a good listener of accents
  • What is true inclusive communication
  • How power dynamics impact inclusive communication
  • What are common barriers to adopting inclusive communication
  • How can one measure the effectiveness of their inclusive language
  • How artificial intelligence and other technologies are shaping global communication
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. As our workplaces grow increasingly global and interconnected, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment to reevaluate one of the most potent yet overlooked aspects of DEI: language and human communication. We often hear that language is power, but today, we're going to be looking at language as a tool, tool of empowerment. And our guest argues that language is more than just a means of expression. It's a bridge, she says, allowing us to traverse cultural divides, challenge biases, and foster truly inclusive spaces. In her work, she seeks to break down linguistic barriers and challenge the often unseen micro inequalities that stand in the way of truly diverse and inclusive workspaces. Heather Hansen helps global professionals show up, speak up, and inspire action in a changing world. Heather's 2018 TEDx talk, titled 2 Billion Voices How to Speak Bad English perfectly, has had over 200,000 views, and it's used across the world in many university classrooms and in many corporate training spaces. She's a leader in the field of global English communication, where she's known for being an outspoken advocate for global voices. She fights against micro inequalities related to language and accent in international teams, and ultimately, she helps companies build communication cultures where every voice is heard. She's the author of Unmuted: How to Show Up, Speak Up, and Inspire Action. Heather, it's such a privilege to welcome you here today. Thanks for taking time to join us on our podcast. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and what you do?

Heather Hansen

Thank you so much, Phil. Thank you for having me. And that was probably the best introduction I have ever been given on a podcast. So thank you so much for that. You mentioned some really important points in that intro that I'll just kind of reconfirm now. You mentioned a bridge and how language is a bridge. And I think in introducing who I am and what I do, I like to consider myself as a bridge. A bridge between academia and practice, especially in the area of linguistics and English language teaching, as well as a bridge between the typical monolingual, yet perhaps multicultural, English speaker versus the multilingual, international, and multicultural English speaker. I think that's a bridge that needs a lot of work to be built so that we can overcome some of the challenges we see between people who don't really have that experience of learning a foreign language and understand the privilege they have being born into English. So, I was born and raised in California, and I studied international studies. In fact, William & Mary was one of my shortlisted schools that I considered way, way back in the day. But I ended up at a small school of international Studies in California. And after all of my time working abroad studying abroad, I almost spent more time abroad than in the United States during my schooling. And right after graduation, I moved to Denmark, where I continued my studies in linguistics. And after about four years there, my husband and I made the move to Singapore and lived here. We thought we were coming for two years. It turned into eight. I started a company here focusing specifically on global communication skills. So, giving people, especially in multinational companies, the tools to communicate well and build those bridges of understanding among their teams and to their clients and stakeholders all over the world. And that's what I've been doing ever since. We had a short stint back in Denmark again and then back again to Singapore. But this is really home for us and where we plan to stay, and where I headquarter my business, although I work all over the world at this stage, especially since we moved online. So that's really all about what I do and my background and what brought me here.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. One of my favorite things about your work is your TEDx talk. In my mind, that's where all academics really find their place to shine. Right. And it's like a due diligence you have to do along the way. In that TEDx talk, how to speak bad English perfectly. You really unpack a lot of your work, and I'm wondering if you can share about that process and then how that led you to unmuted, which is also just wonderful work, a wonderful. Again, a toolkit in its own right to give leaders the tools they need to build those spaces we speak of. Can you talk about maybe those two things the TEDx and unmuted share with our listeners a little bit more about both of those works?

Heather Hansen

Yeah, and thanks for the question. Yeah. The TEDx was a big deal for me, and it's led to a lot of attention, and a lot of people refer back to that TEDx it came about. And it's not all positive. Right. A lot of people will say, oh, why is she calling it bad English? And what's this and what's that? And the whole point of this talk is that there is no such thing as bad English. It's my clients who come to me and say, my English is so bad, my English is so bad, I need to sound like you. I want to sound American. I want to sound British. And I'm saying, well, first of all, your English is not bad. There's no such thing as bad. And you are, for some reason, equating American or British English with good. Who taught you that? And it was very likely teachers, educators, parents, and the business world in general in the global economy has taught that if you are not a native speaker, then your English is not good. And the reality is that most of us native speakers are the ones causing problems in international settings. We speak too fast. We use a bunch of idioms, touch base, whole nine yards, all of our great Americanisms that we don't even realize are Americanisms, especially if we've never learned foreign languages and we are the ones causing the difficulty. So that was one of the first main messages in that TED Talk is that as native speakers born into the language, we are in the great, great minority of English speakers worldwide. This is not our language. And when it is used in the global economy, it is used very differently, and it is a tool for understanding. So, as far as I'm concerned, if you can understand and you're being understood, that is good English. That is good communication. And that was the main message of that talk. Beyond that was also the message around accent. I've become quite known in Southeast Asia as an accent specialist, meaning people come to me and say, fix my accent. Or, more likely, HR calls and says, fix that person's accent. Make them sound like you. And I have always been very much against that mentality. It's not about accent reduction. You don't reduce an accent. You don't neutralize an accent. You add to it, and you learn to speak with clarity. So when I go home to California, people tell me I talk funny, and I usually say, why? Because I speak clearly now. I articulate my word endings, I use a T in my words, and that's what I teach my clients to do. So, I am a huge supporter of accent recognition. Instead of accent reduction, meaning all of us need to learn the skill set of how to tune our ears to better understand others globally. The world is coming to us. You can sit in your living room in my hometown, in a little teeny hometown in California, and the world is coming. So you need to develop those skill sets. So that, I think, did that do the talk justice there?

Phil Wagner

And you take us down a rabbit trail. So let's not forget to come back to unmuted because I want to talk about that, but I think you're teeing up some important themes here you talk about in your work. The goal is to get your message out to be understood. What does your work say about listeners? Right. Those who might say, I'm an inclusive leader, but still find themselves subtly discriminating or holding those biases against language or accent. Before this call, you and I were starting to unpack that term a little bit more. What does that really mean? So, talk to us about the flip side for the audience. What does your work say? What orientation do they need to take to be ready to change how they think about accent?

Heather Hansen

Yes, and I have a few chapters on listening and accent in unmuted as well. The problem that I see is leaders believe they are being inclusive. Leaders believe that using inclusive communication, meaning words like folks instead of you guys, or using he and she instead of just he, that these are using inclusive language is being an inclusive communicator. And that is not the case because there is so much inherent unconscious bias in the language itself. When we go into a global setting, and the language that we use is the lingua franca, the common language, when that is English, there is an immediate hierarchy and power differential. Those of us who were born into the language have immediate power and control in that conversation. And we see this enormously in a place like Singapore, that is so incredibly diverse and international, and yet all the leadership tends to be native English speakers. Why is that? There's something happening. Why do I get phone calls every day where they say, we really want to put this person up into the C suite, but we just aren't sure he's global enough? We aren't sure he can really represent us. We aren't sure that his executive presence is strong enough. What does that really mean? What it means is this person does not properly fit the image and the bias that I have for what a leader looks like and what they should sound like. And what they're really saying is his accent is too heavy, or her accent is too heavy, although very often, most 80% plus, it's he, not she, at this level. And the great majority of my clients are he. It is very much about them not fitting this, first of all, very Westernized image of leadership. And that's one huge, huge problem. And secondly, it's about them not sounding the way they expect and want them to, which is also very Western, more native sounding. And even that is such a silly idea because look at the United States. How many different accents do we have? You know, immediately when I say someone from Texas, Alabama, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Boston, the California Valley girl, and all the different ethnic variations of English that we speak in the United States, just as I mentioned, those out loud people will hear and have immediate ideas of what those people sound like and what that means, and that is what is actually coming into the workplace, and that is what we are not talking about. And that if we want to talk about inclusive communication, that's really the essence of it. So that's, I think, something very important to unpack and start thinking about at a different level.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, quite an unpacking there. And in that, you talk a little bit about our themes and power dynamics, and I think those are really important themes that don't often get discussed in this space. We know that they exist. We know that they drive our communication patterns. I'm wondering, how do power dynamics influence that inclusive leadership communication that we speak of? And particularly, how can leaders be mindful of those power dynamics in their interactions? In what ways, I should say, can inclusive leadership communication challenge or disrupt, or upend those traditional power dynamics within an organization?

Heather Hansen

Well, first, we need to see how it shows up because there are a few different ways that these power dynamics show up. In a meeting, for example, the leader could think, hmm, Annie never speaks up. She must not have something to say. But the reality could be that Annie is translating into another language. It takes her a split second longer to raise her hand and have the confidence to contribute. It could be that Annie comes from a culture where it is respectful to follow whatever the boss says, and it is respectful not to say something against someone who is older and has a higher rank in the company. There could be a lot of reasons why Annie is not speaking up. And yet, many leaders will have an immediate assumption from our Western-biased mentality and how we have been raised, especially in the United States, to always speak up if we have something to say. And of course, I expect my people, and we have a team, and we're close, they'll tell me anything. No, no, not necessarily. So, being an inclusive communicator means making space holding space. It means meetings need to slow down. You have to get comfortable with silence, which, as Americans, we are absolutely not comfortable with silence. I know that from living in Scandinavia, where they are very comfortable with silence. We go to a dinner party, there's that seven-minute pause, and we all kind of freak out and look around the table like, who's going to say something? But in a lot of cultures, that pause is necessary. It's a time to reflect and to think twice about what we're going to say. Not just to make noise but to say something meaningful. So, that's one way that this power hierarchy can have a huge impact on what's happening in the conversation. Another really common myth, I would say, is this idea that the leader should have the answers. The leader should be the eloquent speaker. The leader should be doing all the talking. And there are a lot of people who go into the meeting. I'm the leader of the meeting, therefore I should be doing the talking. And that's actually the reverse of what we should be doing. The leader should be coming in to facilitate discussion, to hear new ideas, to get all the voices on the table. So that's another way that that power differential can cause some problems for us. So, how do we begin to solve it? Well, first of all, like I said, giving more space, staying quiet, giving chances for others, going into a meeting, and making it your mission to hear from every single person around that board table that you want to make sure that everyone has spoken. Because if they haven't, why are they there? Why were they invited to this meeting if they are not contributing in some way? But it is also your job, from a very basic level, to build a culture where people feel like they can press, unmute, and they can speak up. So the psychological safety needs to be in place, the cross-cultural awareness needs to be there, the self-awareness of knowing if you're too loud in the room and dominating a conversation. These are all parts of that puzzle. So this is the main reason I wrote Unmuted because I was so tired of being called up by HR. We want to change the communication in the company. Can you come do a two-day program on presentation skills? That's not doing anything. That's not getting us anywhere. It's so much more complex. Communication is complex, and it needs a complex solution. And that's where the whole framework of being conscious, confident, and connected came into existence.

Phil Wagner

Again, as a fellow communication scholar, I feel that so deeply, right? You find yourselves in that soft skill space, which is how you're often classified, where people think you can package your entire discipline or an entire canon into a fun 60-minute workshop, and you're like, no, this does not work that way. So, again, I feel that quite deeply. We're getting to strategies. We're getting to tools for the toolkit. But before we go further in that conversation, I do want to back up and talk about barriers or obstacles to even being able to implement your work. What are some of the common barriers you find? Is it just power structures, or are there other barriers that you find get in the way of actually adopting this?

Heather Hansen

Yeah, there are a lot. There are a lot of barriers. I mean, the biggest excuse that companies and individuals, working professionals, have is I don't have time. I don't have time. And I always chuckle with that excuse when it comes to communication because you are communicating every single moment of your workday. You constantly have time to work on your communication. You always have time to apply your learning and your new skills. So time is an excuse that we use, whereas if you simply raise your awareness around how you are communicating, you could be working on that and changing your behaviors every minute of every day. So the excuses around time are a big one. Other challenges would be the cultural challenges. So, I am in a very, very international environment. Sitting in Singapore. We have an enormous expat population of workers who are from other countries. I have a dinner party, and I have twelve different nationalities in 18 languages around the table. It's insane. And so, every conversation that I am in is a cross-cultural one. And you learn a lot about how to communicate when you're in those situations. Now, what I've noticed, especially from an American perspective, is that typically, unless you're in a very large city, you do not always have that kind of practice available to you. Maybe your only interaction with someone foreign is working with your IT guy in India, which is, I know, a stereotype in itself, but it's very common. So those small, short interactions you may not think are that important, or they may be frustrating for you, or your biases creep up. And so that causes some challenges as well, to learn and understand how important cross-cultural communication is. And many people believe that culture is the big C, just the country, nationality, and the culture that we bring. But there's little C culture as well. There's the difference between men and women communicating. The differences between people from different religions and upbringings and backgrounds and races, all the things we talk about in DEI, all of those differences are little microcultures that we carry with us. And you can be as different from the person that you grew up next door to as you are to someone from China or someone from Malaysia or Germany or France. And that's important to understand that intercultural is also interpersonal. So, we need to have a shift in mindset in how we are approaching our relationships. So those are some of the very biggest challenges along with this power differential. And I would just tack on to that the fact that so much of it is unconscious. Many people have never even thought about the fact that they could be biased against certain accents. And yet when I bring up that Texan or that New Jersey, I mean, when someone says, oh, I'm from New Jersey, I immediately think of Joey and Friends, like, that is my image. Now, if Joey and Friends walks into the office and I have a meeting, and he's my potential client, how do I manage that when I have a picture of Joey in my head the minute he opens his mouth? These are the biases that creep up on us, and we don't realize them until we're in the situation. So there are many, many challenges that make it difficult to really implement this kind of work. And so much of it isn't that unconscious level. So it's about really becoming self-aware first. And that's the first chapter of the book: who are you? It's very much about becoming more self-aware of your own cultural baggage and what that means for you in the world.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, the foundation of emotional intelligence. Right. Self-awareness. So key to so much in our leadership journey. We've talked a little bit about kind of getting people going, getting the engine started so that they become aware working in this space. When you're talking about microaggressions or unconscious bias, we also have to recognize that sometimes you can elicit sort of the pink elephant effect where you say, hey, be careful about this. These are unconscious. Now be aware. And you're constantly now thinking of those. I'm thinking that this could also become reductionist, fetishizing, exotifying, tokenistic. Very quickly.

Heather Hansen

Like every area of DEI.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Heather Hansen

The fine line that we're always walking.

Phil Wagner

How do you navigate that?

Heather Hansen

And that is quite difficult. And this is also why I tend to stay away from national comparisons of culture. That is by far the most popular, and especially in the mainstream public. People gravitate towards those books that say, Americans are like this, and Germans are like that, and Chinese are like this, and it's not like that. It's not like that. Everyone comes with their own personal experiences. If I walk into a room and someone says, ooh, Heather's American, I'm going to act this way because Americans like this, they are very likely going to fail. I have spent over half of my life outside of America in two incredibly different cultures than the American culture. I do not have any close American friends here. I do not flow in the American circles. I'm as un-American as you could probably be at this stage. And so assuming, based on my passport, that I will have a certain personality, I will communicate a certain way, I will have certain beliefs. That's a scary stereotype to start following. So what I really focus on is this idea of intercultural being interpersonal that we need to have the toolkit to understand how to be curious, what questions to ask, how to notice what the differences are in our styles of communication without trying to peg it on. Oh, it's because they're from Germany, so they're very punctual. I mean, come on. I've met a ton of Germans that are always ten minutes late because they've lived in Asia forever, and they follow the typical how we show up here. Just because you're from a certain country does not mean you're going to tick that box. And there are other personal characteristics that are so much more important. So, really, I'm all about talking about the microcultures and steering away from these national stereotypes. But when we dig into bias and dig into uncovering why we are biased, it is due to stereotypes we have grown up with. There's a reason why we all think that Germans are punctual, and there's a reason why we think Indians speak a certain way. Well, that's because a white male voiced a character on the Simpsons that we all grew up with and made up an Indian accent that we seem to think is real, and it's not. And so there are stereotypes that have been given to us through the media, through education, through parenting, through teachers, through politics, through everything that has taught us certain things, and it's about deconstructing those and coming up with our own beliefs and our own ideas and learning through experience instead of falling back on the mental stereotypes we've created through what has been told and given to us if that makes sense.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it does. And again, I appreciate the way you unpack and speak to your work consistently here. I want to go back to what this means for leaders who adopt your work. You talked earlier about avoiding terminology like you guys. Right. And I remember in graduate school, that was, like, the thing everybody loved to police each other's language. And I understand that every element of language is a microcosm of power. So I get that, and I see that that's legitimate. But I don't worry; I know that becomes overly naive simplistic.

Heather Hansen

Incredibly.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it's performative. And so what about your work takes us beyond that, beyond performative allyship? And look at me. I recognize accents are power. What does it actually do to change how we lead, how we communicate, how we build inclusive organizational cultures?

Heather Hansen

Yeah, I actually don't even talk about inclusive language because I think it's pretty ridiculous, and I don't think it moves the needle at all. Whether you say you guys or folks, that's not the point. The point is understanding underneath that every single person at that table has a voice and a voice that's worth listening to. And so it is moving beyond all of the labels, all of the vocabulary, all of the policing because that in itself is a power play. The people who police grammar, police vocabulary, the grammar police online, that's the worst part of my job. When people find out that I'm a communication consultant, they immediately get self-conscious and say, oh, I better really watch how I talk around you. And I'm like, no, actually, it's the exact opposite. I am the one that you do not have to be worried about because I'm accepting of anything you say. Right? Do you get that in your work as well?

Phil Wagner

I teach management communication, and so I try to set the standard that I'm a human first, right? I'm a human first and always again. You should feel free to kind of let your guard down together. And the struggles you speak of working with executives who don't think that somebody's ready to rise up. I see that in our international student population here, particularly in our MBA programs, just the impostor syndrome that has already set in as they start that MBA journey, and we begin dismantling that on day one. So I see so much applicability right here, right now, with where we are in our teaching and learning landscape.

Heather Hansen

Yeah, those international students. For sure, you know, I was there. I was that international student studying in Austria, speaking German, having to stand up and give my final oral presentation in German. And already at that age, I had already spoken at my high school graduation. I had spoken in front of thousands of people. I was a competitive speech and debate person. I was all-American ranked nationally. And I was sick with nerves and worry, having to stand up and do that in German, sick with worry. Made myself sick for weeks and stood in front of that class and watched them all look at me with pity and the professor trying to give me words. I knew everything. And all I was thinking was, if I could just do this in English, they would know how smart I am. They would know that I have all the answers, that I know this stuff. And you get into that downward spiral, and the impostor syndrome is very real because you're working five times harder to manage the linguistics of the subject, as well as the subject itself, as well as the perceptions of the people who are listening to you. And you could have been top of your class back home, which I was, and then you move into a foreign language environment, and everything changes, and suddenly you find yourself having to prove yourself, and you shouldn't have to, what you're saying just. It hits my heart because I lived that, and that was one of the main experiences that made me decide that this is what I wanted to do with my life because I felt like, for me, internationally, I can always switch back to English, and I regain my power. I can say you don't like the way I talk. Let's speak English then. All right. And now I'm in charge. But what about all the people who can't do that? Bahasa, Mandarin, Thai, Tagalog, you name it, even French and German. What do they do when they're thrown into an English-speaking workplace, English-speaking university, and their entire degree, all of their grades, their promotion, their salary, the way people perceive their leadership ability is based on the way they communicate, and they can't climb that ladder. So I understand exactly where that imposter syndrome comes from, and it's very real, and it's because the rest of us have not been educated to understand what it's like to battle through that kind of situation. We don't have the empathy because we've never experienced it if we've never learned a foreign language or we've never lived abroad. And by a foreign language, I mean more than, like, two years of high school Spanish. Right. We're talking like living, working, experiencing what it is like to live your life in another language. And there are very significant challenges that come with that. So, sorry, I took us off on a totally different direction, but that hits my heartstrings because I've lived it, and I know how painful it is.

Phil Wagner

No, it's great. I want to ask about measurement because we know if we don't measure it, it doesn't get done. And so, how do you actually measure the effectiveness of what you do? How do you know that it's working and achieving those desired goals? What are some of the measurement schemes that you might?

Heather Hansen

Yeah, I have a really strong opinion on this one because we know that, well, we superficially know that most diversity inclusion training doesn't work. That's the new headline, right, is that we're pouring all this money into diversity and inclusion. None of it is working. Nothing is happening. But I would argue that we're measuring all the wrong things. Just because you're measuring these little pulse surveys, that really doesn't tell us what has changed in the organization. And most organizations are measuring it that way through course evaluations pulse surveys of the audience over time. Now, what I strongly believe in, and I partner with a organizational network analysis firm in Denmark, one of the world leaders, Innovisor. And what they do is they run surveys of the company, not asking, how do you feel about this? Do you feel like you belong? But asking questions like, who do you turn to for advice? Who do you trust? Who do you believe will support you in a new project? They're these kinds of questions, and you get lists of names, and what they're able to do is graph the social map of the company in black and white. We can actually see how are people connected, and we can see on paper, oh, look at this. We've got this old boys club over here that only talks to each other, and they actually don't talk to any of the women in the department. Or, whoa, guess what? We have this guy from the UK sitting in Singapore and this guy in the UK, and they talk to each other more than they talk to their own teams. Why is that? Does that have to do with language, and accent, and belonging? So we're able, through this kind of analysis and what the work that Innovisor does, that just blows my mind. And I cannot believe more companies aren't looking at this, is looking at the social fabric of that company, of who trusts whom, who interacts with whom, are they connected. Are they in silos? And you can start a project and see what that looks like, and you can finish the project and see whether or not that has changed. Because simply saying do you feel like you belong? Tells us nothing. We can actually see do they belong. We can also see when people self-select to remove themselves from the conversations where they believe they don't belong, and yet they are actually fully socially connected, and yet they're still reporting that, no, nobody likes me. Well, that means that you're self-selecting and moving yourself out of the conversations because people are there supporting you and are turning to you and are asking you. And it's not always the white Western male's fault. Sometimes, there is work to be done on the other sides of all the diversity equations to meet in the middle, and we can see that. But that, I believe, is the only true measurement. And I write about this. I have a full chapter dedicated to it in unmuted because the work they do is so important. And we've collaborated now on an accent bias study where we've also seen this English advantage play out in the workplace, where people who are born into English are listened to to a wider extent and degree throughout the company. So when we can see that in black and white, it really does change everything, and it gives us a real good idea of what is working and what isn't.

Phil Wagner

I have one more question for you if it's all right. So we know that the pandemic really opened up a chasm pretty quickly between present and future. There was a catalyst. We had to change. We had to pivot. We moved organizational communication primarily, if not exclusively, online 2020, and that has forever disrupted our norms around effective organizational and leadership communication. I think we find ourselves again in one of those moments where AI has hit, and it has hit hard, and it is currently changing and will forever change organizational communication. Maybe it's not just AI in your work, but I'm wondering about those sort of key trends in global communication that you see shaping the future of leadership communication, inclusive communication, organizational communication, and beyond.

Heather Hansen

Yeah, absolutely. AI is the biggest one right now. AI is huge. I would also include in this, which is also AI-based, our translation tools our tools for interpretation. So you can watch a Microsoft PowerPoint presentation and get a translation or subtitles up on the screen as you're watching. I think the ability for us to begin using our own languages is huge. We already have the technology to have an earpiece, and all speak our own languages at the table. There are companies that will come into your meeting and do simultaneous interpretation in any number of languages to the unique individuals on that call. And that could completely change the way we communicate globally. If we were able to level the playing field so that English was not the world's language, but actually everyone could speak their own languages, then what happens to that power differential of the English speaker on top? I could see that people could feel very threatened by that. So that's another big piece of technology that I think is very quickly changing the world. And we have all kinds of other tools that are helping the international English speaker, like Grammarly. I also incorporate Yoodli, which is a public speaking tool that can give you AI feedback on the way that you speak, your speaking rate, your number of fillers. There are a lot of great learning tools out there that can help to support and give that extra confidence to the international speaker that's hopefully starting to level the playing field. On the opposite side, we have a perpetuation of bias with companies, one in particular called Sanas, that has developed an accent translator. So Raj in India, calling John in Michigan from the call center, presses a button that says Mike from Michigan. He speaks in his Indian English, and John hears Mike's voice. That is already happening. Now, I understand this is a huge, huge help for that Indian call center worker whose livelihood depends on being able to sell a product or get that top ten rating in his customer service. Yet, at the same time, we aren't helping the world by perpetuating the bias and not allowing people to hear and start tuning their ears to others. So it's a very fine line that we're walking, and it's quite difficult. But technology is absolutely reshaping our world and the way that we communicate, for good or bad. I see it could go in either direction. There are a lot of great tools that can help us, but I think we also need to be very careful about the ethics of especially AI, which is only as good as the information we feed it. So it's really becoming as biased as we are. So, how do we stop that from happening? But yes, definitely really big challenges coming up in the future around our global communication.

Phil Wagner

So that seems then we'll have to have you back on another episode to unpack those. But as we end today's conversation. Heather, I'm so inspired by the work you do. Can you tell our listeners where to find your work and the best way to support you in your journey?

Heather Hansen

Well, if you want to learn more about me, my speaking topics, and my books, then I would go to heatherhansen.com, and that's also where you can get a copy of Unmuted and learn more about my work there. If you're interested in corporate training programs, my corporate training firm is called Globalspeechacademy.com. So, either of those places or feel free to reach out on LinkedIn. I love to get DMs and start conversations on LinkedIn and get to know people in their work there, so you can easily find me there as well.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. Heather, thanks for joining us on our podcast today. Such a privilege to speak with you. Appreciate your time.

Heather Hansen

Thank you. This has been such a nice conversation. Thanks for having me, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Lamecia Butler
Lamecia ButlerEpisode 48: November 6, 2023
Inclusive and Impactful Supply Chains

Lamecia Butler

Episode 48: November 6, 2023

Inclusive and Impactful Supply Chains

Today, host Phil Wagner is joined by Lamecia Butler, who has extensive experience in the corporate and non-profit sectors where she has led communication, marketing, community, and supplier diversity efforts for well-known brands: Meta, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Super Bowl 50, Super Bowl LI, American Express and more. She's worked with countless business professionals and entrepreneurs on a global scale to help them achieve their goals.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What is defined by supplier diversity
  • Why supplier diversity is important
  • What are some of the biggest challenges diverse suppliers face
  • How did diverse supply chains change post-2020
  • How companies can properly diversify their suppliers
  • How diverse suppliers can best approach large corporate contracts
  • What metrics matter the most when deciding upon diverse suppliers
  • What are best practices for implementing internationally diverse suppliers
  • What are some innovative programs that are promoting diverse suppliers
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today, I'm joined by Lamecia Butler, who has an extensive experience in the corporate and nonprofit sector where she has led communication, marketing, community, and supplier diversity efforts for well-known brands, companies we all know and love, including Meta, Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Super Bowl 50, Super Bowl 51, American Express, and more. She's worked with countless business professionals and entrepreneurs on a global scale to help them develop and achieve their goals. She's also a fellow communications faculty member. So we're going to nerd out, hopefully, a little bit on comm and supplier diversity today. But Lamecia, before we get, I just want to thank you for taking time to meet with us today. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and the types of work that you do?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, I mean, I think you kind of summed it up there, so that was pretty great. But I think, in general, my position on my life is that I'm here to open the doors for others. And so I think that's really driven my career and what I've been doing, and particularly for the last seven years as I've been working in supplier diversity, you know, looking for ways that wherever I am, be it working with the NFL on the host committee, opening doors for local businesses there, or specifically now at Meta, looking for ways that around the globe we can make sure that diverse businesses have an opportunity to grow and connect by providing goods and services with their businesses. That's the goal that I look for in life. I am a daughter of entrepreneurs. I myself have been an entrepreneur, so I understand all the struggles that diverse-owned businesses have encountered and are encountering today. So when I look at my role, it's a way to one promote what they're doing. So that's where the marketing comms comes in. Telling the stories of those diverse suppliers, how they're able to work with corporations, and then making sure that internally, our team members who are helping with those efforts are getting recognized and that our company can continue to grow on our trajectory of spending more with diverse-owned businesses and providing more opportunities.

Phil Wagner

I'm really excited about the topic that we're going to talk about today. I was once a faculty member at the University of South Florida when we hired Terry Daniel to come in and be Assistant Vice President over supplier diversity initiatives. And I have to tell you, though, I was deeply involved in sort of the theoretical and applied management perspectives on diversity and inclusion. I had spent very little time in supplier diversity and honestly couldn't even probably give you a good working definition. So maybe we should start there for our listeners because I think we take a management lens on this podcast most of the time. When you're talking about supplier diversity, Lamecia, what are you talking about? What does this mean? Who does this serve? What is this?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, and I think that is important. So, thanks for taking a moment to pause on that because I think a lot of people think DEI automatically transfers to supplier diversity, and that's not the case. So when we think about supplier diversity, it's really around the procurement, the sourcing of goods and services that your organization is buying. And I use the word organization because, to your point, it can be an educational institution. It could be hospitals, et cetera. So, what is your organization buying, and how are you making sure that your supply chain is inclusive? And for us supplier diversity, here at Meta, we look at five categories typically, so they vary by where you sit in the globe. But our main five categories are minority-owned, so racial ethic, minority-owned, women-owned, disabled, veteran, and LGBTQ plus. So those are our five main categories. Again, you may not see that represented across the board in different areas of the globe. However, I would say women-owned is the leading diversity factor that we see, and that has translated all across the globe. And so our efforts in someone or someone for our supplier diversity team, but also we work. And at Meta, we sit in what we call the we sit in finance, but we sit in the procure source to pay organization. So, it's the lifecycle of how vendors work with us. And so we're responsible for introducing those diverse suppliers to the people who are making those purchasing decisions, making sure that once they're onboarded, they have that great experience, that they're learning that they are performing according to expectations and then, ideally, that their business will grow within Meta over time because of the great work that they've been doing. So that is essentially what supplier diversity is introducing those diverse-owned businesses into the supply chain and giving them an opportunity.

Phil Wagner

Oh, my God, that was so well packaged. I catch that. I grab hold of that. That's so good. Before we jump in and talk about some of those specifics, actually, I want to go back a little bit because you tee up your narrative as a fellow communications person, faculty member, scholar, practitioner, you know, the importance of story and narrative, anchor point. And I'm really curious about your story, your journey. What inspired you to dedicate your life to this? Specifically, how does this connect back to your value systems? I really want to know why is this the thing that makes your heart sing.

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, so growing up, we love stories. My mom, we were always reading at the library, and she also made us write stories. So, in preparation for school, we were constantly writing. So that was a muscle, both reading and writing, that I just grew organically just by nature of how my mom was. And throughout that, as I was looking and going into college and, what am I going to do? The never-ending question that you ponder. At one point, I thought that I wanted to be a sports reporter. So I was down that track, was interning doing all of that, and then I realized I didn't like being in front of the camera, but I still love telling the stories of the athletes, or even better, once I got into public relations, I really love the community aspect of the work. And so that's what led me to go and pursue my MBA, really think about how could I help organizations at a more strategic level. Think about the impact that they could have with their companies. But that marketing and Collins piece never left me. No matter what I did, there was know the opportunity. And even with my current manager, I remember he and I worked we've worked together. Now, this is the third time we've worked together, but he came up to me, and he's like, hey, I heard you had a peer background. I'm working on this press conference. Do you have any contacts? And, of course, I did. So those opportunities never left. So, I always felt encouraged by the fact that I knew that that skill set mattered. And particularly for supplier diversity, telling the stories of our diverse suppliers matters so much. We at Meta and our team we say that we're not here to change hearts and minds, but we do know, though, that the stories are what changes the hearts and minds of the individuals who may have some misconceptions about whether or not diverse suppliers can operate at the scale and produce at the scale that they need. And so by demonstrating through storytelling, we do a lot of videos and telling not only are they doing this for Meta, but they're doing this for X, Y, and Z companies. Then that kind of releases that tension and that apprehension that they have to work with those diverse suppliers. So, it's a more powerful tool than people understand. And that's why we also try to get the diverse suppliers to understand. When you're coming up to that corporate representative, you have to know how to pitch yourself and help them understand what you're doing as well.

Phil Wagner

This is so good. Normally, on this podcast, I like to think that my questions are so well organized and they follow this nice linear chain. Today is not going to work that way. I'm so sorry. I've just got a million questions because this is an area where I'm trying to harness my skill set even more and better understand just sort of the intricacies. So I want to talk about maybe some of the challenges. So you've got such extensive experience here. What are some of the biggest challenges that diverse suppliers and I hope that terminology works, what are some of those biggest challenges that those diverse suppliers face when they're trying to do businesses, particularly with large companies?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, I think the greatest thing that people think is the biggest challenge, and I'll push back on it a little bit is, and the reason why I'll push back on it is because I think there's been some growth across the industry. And I think you've seen over the last two years, especially since 2020, a lot more corporations really saying, we're interested. We want to do work with diverse suppliers. So I think that entry that door is a little bit more open than it was. So I don't think that's the greatest barrier. When we think about it, there's four things that we kind of came up with that are really the challenges that I think diverse suppliers have. So we called it the four P's. So you see my marketing background coming in, the four P's. So we talked about the pitch, but even before the pitch, it's the preparation. So how do you prepare to truly understand what that corporation is buying, whether or not they're buying the good or service you had? So, how do you prepare for that conversation? Then it's the pitch itself, and do you truly understand what they wanted? Did you provide that in your pitch? Do you have the right people on your team in order for you to be a true competitor in that space? If you're in this request for proposal, which we call RFPs if you're in that bidding system, are you really pitching yourself the right way? And then let's say you pitch, and then it's kind of cheating here, but there's two P's here on this one, which is patient persistence. And I think this is probably the hardest part for diverse suppliers because you've met the supplier diversity professional, you've met the marketing person who's probably going to hire you or someone in IT. However, there's silence, and that's the nature of the business because procurement can be a hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait process. And so learning how to maintain those relationships over the course of that, I think that's probably the most important part is that persistence, but not bugging someone. So, not emailing me every day, but making sure that you had a very tangible and meaningful touch point where if you reach out to me, you're adding value. I saw Meta was doing this, and by the way, we also work on that. So just want to make sure you remember our qualities there. And then the final one is performance. So a lot of suppliers think, okay, I got it, I'm in. This is going to be the million-dollar contract, which let me dispel any rumors there. There are million-dollar contracts, but the likelihood are so few and far in between. So do not think that when you work with a corporation, that's going to be your big ticket. You really have to perform, and through your performance and continued performance and showing the results and the impact that you have, that's when you have the opportunity. I've seen some businesses focus on all four of those parts, and they have been doing really well with Meta. We've been able to see them grow because by nature of them doing well on this project, they can get promoted to another team, another team hires them, and they've seen tremendous growth, even not just within Meta. I think that is another thing that I would caution diverse suppliers is to remember that the supplier diversity space it's a small space. We really know the other professionals. And so it's an opportunity for whenever you're speaking to Meta, you might also be speaking to our peers at other organizations without knowing it because if we don't need it, but someone else asks us for a recommendation, if you do a great pitch, we're going to remember you, and we're likely to recommend you.

Phil Wagner

That's fantastic. You mentioned sort of post-2020 moment, and it catches me because I think there are multiple things that pop in my head. Number one, I still see this as a relatively new space. Now, of course, it's not supplier diversity is not new, but what I mean is, even in the diversity-themed textbooks we might use to teach diversity and inclusion management, we're starting to see more content on supplier diversity as part of corporate DEI initiatives in there. And I know those aren't explicitly linked, but they're coupled. You mentioned 2020, and that sort of jars me to think about how that history has shifted. Did that shift in 2020 come as a COVID spawn moment or a post-George Floyd moment? There's been a lot of change, but what has spawned that change? And then maybe the question is, where does that change lead us in the next 5 10 years?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, so I'll give a hopeful answer of where I hope it leads us. But to answer your question, yes, 2020 was a post-George Floyd the conversation about racial, economic injustice that really did spur a lot of corporations to, as you know, we saw the pledges coming up, here's what we're going to do, here's what we'll do for these communities. Et cetera, et cetera. And some have delivered. Thankfully, we at Meta delivered. We said that we would spend a billion dollars with diverse suppliers starting in 2021, and we did that. And then, we also had a goal to spend 100 million with black-owned businesses, and we spent over 306,000,000 in 2021. So, we delivered on that promise. The one thing that I will say about that is that we've had that commitment before George Floyd. We had actually put that commitment and our spend goals in place in 2019 and had socialized that within the organization. However, when 2020 came, we made it public. So we were always pushing for those goals. So that gets me into what I hope will happen because I will tell you, the number of supplier diversity professionals has increased tremendously. I've been to several conferences where the rooms are full now, and we didn't have that years ago. So I was at the Disability In conference in July, and it was standing room only. There were over 200 professionals in that room, and we didn't have that before. So that lets me know that one, corporations are investing in the supplier diversity professionals, being in the spaces where diverse suppliers are, and then also getting the training and the development that they need. So NMSDC also hosts what they called the Business Leadership Seminar. They changed the name this year, but I think that was the name of it. And that's also an opportunity for us to share best practices and learn from each other and how can we grow our programs. So that was also another packed room. So what I'm hoping will happen is that one, corporations will do more than just have these pledges, have these individuals in place, they will allow them to introduce and open the doors for diverse suppliers, and then we can continue to collaborate and work together. That's really our push for Meta is really not just to think about Meta, but to think about the industry itself and how can we all collaborate.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. Let's go one level deeper here, right? Your call, your invitation is like, stop checking the box, folks. So if you're relatively new to this space or you're just struggling to wrap your head around it, and you look to Meta, and you say, jeez, billion dollars, like, my gosh, I can't start there. Where do you start? Or how do you recommend those companies deepen their journey in an authentic way that's not just about checking that box?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, so one of the ones that we talk about in our mission is that we want to create opportunities for diverse suppliers who do business with us and the people in the communities they connect. And the reason why that mission is important is because we have centered our work around the diverse supplier. So that means we're consolidating about who do they need to be connected to, how do we make sure that they're growing, et cetera. So I think if you take away the thoughts of how much spend you're doing, et cetera, if that's not your first goal if your first goal is how do we grow and develop these diverse suppliers and everyone that will look differently. We actually don't have development programs for diverse suppliers, but we are thinking about how do we grow them within our organization. So, I think that's the first way is to think about how do you center the workaround. Really? What is the outcome that you want for diverse suppliers? Then, we talk about amplification of three things. So, we talk about amplification of processes. So, thinking about your procurement process, where are the areas where diverse suppliers might get lost in the system? How do you make sure that they are visible? How do you make sure that you have accelerated payments for them? And then again, just the growth and discovery. So for us, when we thought about growth and discovery, we created a special tool for diverse suppliers. We did it in conjunction with a diverse supplier where anybody, through SSO single sign-on, they can actually search for diverse suppliers that they can include in the procurement process as they are trying to purchase something. So that's number one. The other part is amplifying connections. So, like, how do we do proactive referrals? What tools do you have where people can easily reach out to your teams to learn more about diverse suppliers? When we think about diverse suppliers, we also know that there's more opportunity for them amongst each other sometimes than it is with a corporation, and especially because some of them are smaller. And so, you may want to bid on something, but you may not have all those qualities. So, we take a lot of time, and part of my work has been around building our diverse supplier community. We I'm proud to say that we had our first-ever global event in London a couple of weeks ago, where we brought our diverse suppliers together, and we just had a happy hour for them to meet each other and to meet other industry professionals. So we had other corporates there, we had other NGO organizations, and we did this quite often. That was actually our fourth event this year. So when we're in different cities, we're bringing them together to connect with each other, and that's important. And we've seen how that has increased collaboration. We have a Facebook group because, hey, we're Meta, so we have a Facebook group for our diverse suppliers so that they can connect, they can say, hey, I'm going to this conference, or hey, I'm looking for this. Does anybody have a resource here? And so those connections are important. And then I think the final thing, again, to get beyond the checkbox, which does have a little bit to do with metrics, but it's to be transparent and to think about amplifying the visibility. So, one of the main reasons I came to Meta was that they wanted to do their first-ever diverse suppliers report. No one was requiring Meta to do it. We just wanted to do it. We wanted to be transparent about the results we're doing. It is still, to this day, one of the biggest things. When you go to our website, you can see our year-over-year data from the time that we started reporting, and that transparency allows people to dig into what we're doing well where we need to improve. And I think more people need to be transparent about that. And then I think just taking what we're learning, reinforcing those learnings globally, and helping people just think about how do they have influence in their organizations. We use the word influence because it's relevant to us. But how do you use your influence to impact the communities by purchasing with diverse suppliers?

Phil Wagner

I could write a whole dissertation on the themes that you just laid out, and that was like last two minutes. And they take me down forward different paths. So, I want to come back to global supply chains, and I want to come back to ROI and metrics, but I want to go back to the diverse supplier first. And so you talk about it, all things are not necessarily equal. And I'm wondering what you see in terms of systematic or structural barriers that exist that make it difficult for those diverse suppliers to win out on corporate contracts, even when supplier diversity programs are in place. Right. How do we address those?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, I think one of the systemic issues that we have is, and this may be controversial, but it's around the collaboration that we see within the NGOs. So when, there are nonprofit organizations that are advocacy organizations that are serving these diverse suppliers, but you have them for every diverse category. Right. So you have one for women, minority, LGBTQ, veteran, disabled. We know because of intersectionality, which is a big part of DEI, that some of these diverse suppliers fit in multiple categories. So, when you think about I as a diverse supplier, I am trying to get noticed by as many corporations as I can. However, I also have limited budget. So, where do I choose to put myself into this space where I can have the maximum exposure to corporations? And so that's a challenge there. Whereas if we had more collaboration amongst those organizations, where they were able to have a universal database of all the diverse suppliers and the diverse suppliers could identify across the categories and then we as professionals in the space can go and search for those diverse suppliers, that would be phenomenal. I mean, that is so groundbreaking. It would save so much time and money instead of us going to five different conferences each year, or some of us even more than that. And so I think that's one of the biggest systemic things is that we just need a little bit more collaboration amongst our organizations that are serving those diverse suppliers. And then I think secondarily, we all need to think about again how do we talk about the work and the impact that supplier diversity can have so people can understand that it's not just a nice to have. We really do need to provide this because we know diverse suppliers they are more likely to hire within their communities. So the economic impact that they are bringing to their local communities as a result of them getting these contracts are so important. And so when you think about people who have to have conversations with policy, and they're talking about the impact that their corporation is having. These are the things that matter, and we just need to have a greater focus on that. And you were talking about this, I think, in another podcast, you know, we have this corporate soup of ESG and all these other how do we make sure that we're playing nicely with all of those other departments and teamings so that we all have the one goal in mind.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. And you tee up the next question, which goes back to those metrics. Right, because this is good for us internally, too. So how do these corporations then ensure that their supplier diversity efforts really deliver? Like ROI? They actually move metrics. What metrics even matter the most in this conversation?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, so I think one of the things we at Meta, we're really proud to be part of the million dollar roundtable, which means that we, along with, I think now there's 29, 31 of us, don't quote me, nine out of us that are there, but that's only corporations that spend a million dollars or more. But what does that really mean? When you think about that, there may be other corporations or other organizations who have a significant amount of spend with diverse suppliers as it relates to their annual budget. So we think that it's so important to move beyond the spend number and to really think about other efforts. So when we look at our spend, what we're kind of thinking is a health dashboard or what makes sure that our diverse spend is healthy. So, one of the things is that less than 50% of our total diverse supplier spend can come from our top ten suppliers. So what that means is that we have a better distribution and that all of our spend is now concentrated with ten suppliers. You won't always see that in the supply chain, and it's only through transparency that you can look through that. I think also we're looking and we're tracking at the total number of diverse suppliers that we use every year and that we contract with. So we're looking to see if that number increases over time. If so, that means that, hey, great, more diverse suppliers are introduced into the supply chain. However, that can also be supplemented by another number that we use. We call it same-store sales, but it's basically the year-over-year return of suppliers that we used the previous year. So, how many of our suppliers are staying within our supply chain? Because that's also a sign of health as well. They're not just one-and-done suppliers. We don't want that. We want them to grow. So those are just like three metrics alone that combined are making you think about, okay, what are we really doing to introduce suppliers, keep them in the supply chain, and grow their spend?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that. Keep focus, too. I think that shows some depth and some intentionality. Again, Beyond that checking the box, I want to go back to we talked about sort of global supply chains here as corporations globalize their supply chain. What are some best practices for implementing supplier Diversity Programs internationally versus domestically? Does that play out the same? What differences matter? How does that work?

Lamecia Butler

Yes, so it does not play out the same. And we learned this. We decided to increase our efforts across the globe in 2020. So we launched in both Latan EMEA, which we call Europe, Middle East, and Africa, and also a Pac on a Southern Asia Pacific region. And what we have learned is that each of those regions are so, you know, that phrase around think global, act local really matters. And particularly in Europe. That's important because one of the things that I would say that everyone needs to learn quickly and get up to speed are the regulatory issues, especially as it relates to classifying diverse suppliers holding diverse supplier data. All of that is so Important. We were just over in Amsterdam at the beginning of September for a conference, and we were just learning about the history behind France and why classifying and holding data for people around ethnicity isn't a practice for them. So, you have to understand those nuances in each country in order to determine what and how your program can have an impact. So that's important. I would say making the best of friends with your legal teams so that they can review and make sure that everything you're doing is up to par. And there's a Regulation called GDPR that I won't even get into, but most people who have heard it, they know what you mean, and they're just like, be with you, good luck. And then I would also say finding those nonprofit organizations, those advocacy partners who can help you. So I think really more so across the globe. We've leaned more heavily into those relationships as we have started to increase our efforts. So, in the US. It's very well known and, you know, kind of who the players are, and you can easily fit in. But because supplier diversity is so new across the Globe, there are a lot of suppliers who don't even realize they qualify, that they don't even know that there is a such thing as a certification, and that corporations are looking for them because they hold these ownership status that they do. And so helping. And we've done this in Latium. Where we actually created a specific Instagram account where we just talk about what it meant to be certified and what supplier diversity is. And so, as Puerto open the doors to diversity and just being able to highlight those nonprofit organizations as well and talk about the opportunities for diverse suppliers. So it's less about, hey, come do business with us. And that's ultimately the goal. But first, we want them to understand. The unique role that their business has and the opportunities they have as a result. So how do you partner with them to find and they need more suppliers to be registered and certified as well? So, how do we have that partnership?

Phil Wagner

That's fantastic. Again, there's a wealth of knowledge there. I want to get a little bit more specific here and think about the trickle effects here. So, a lot of supplier diversity programs really focus heavily on Tier One supplier spending. Right. So, how can corporations better support capacity building and growth for diverse suppliers at the Tier Two and beyond?

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, and transparently. We haven't done a lot of work at Tier Two. So where we stand, we have been reporting, we've had some of our select tier-one suppliers in key categories start to report. So we've had our reporting going for two years. But the ultimate goal of that, and we're starting team, is already in advanced stages of what the next phase of Tier Two looks like. But I think our goal is one to identify these areas. One, uncover if there is spend with diverse suppliers that we don't know. Two, identify where we think more spend can be devoted to diverse suppliers and then making those introductions. And so one of the ways that we've done that in the past is when we do go to the conferences. And in the past, we used to have these huge booths, and people could come in, but what we would do was we'd bring in someone from our contingent workforce team. So if they can come in and meet all of the It staffing providers who are interested in providing staffing services, they have a specific knowledge that they know exactly what questions to ask. And so we're just providing that entryway for them. We've also done that with some other teams in the past as well. Construction, bringing vendors to our actual data centers and allowing them to hear directly about what does it take to be a Tier Two supplier or a subcontractor for this Tier One supplier who's doing the work. So it's one, educating exactly on the requirements of the suppliers who are already in our supply chain. Making those introductions are just as important as well. And then there will have to be the follow-up. So that's where the reporting comes to measure whether or not Tier Two spend is growing.

Phil Wagner

So, if we're thinking about this in terms of there's a global problem related to inequity, we can help address that problem through creative means. Let's talk a little bit more about sort of the creativity or the innovation that's happening in this space. What are you seeing? I mean, in terms of innovative approaches beyond maybe traditional supplier diversity programs that really empower diverse entrepreneurs suppliers, anything innovative that we should keep our eye on?

Lamecia Butler

I have two thoughts on that. There's one that I think is it creative. Is it innovative? Maybe not as creative. However, does it open the door for more suppliers? Yes. And so for that, it's around the certification process. So recently, the US Black Chamber they launched within the last year their Buy Black certification. Why is that important? Especially because it's only for US businesses. However, it's free. And so when you think about certifications that are also offered by these other larger organizations, there's a cost to that. And again, what we're looking for as a corporation when we're looking for certifications is that someone has validated that this business truly is owned and operated and controlled by who they say they are. They do the goods and services, and that there's a valid reasoning that this business will stay in business for the duration of our contracts and beyond. So when we are looking for people who can quickly provide that validation to those businesses and therefore allow them opportunities into our supply chain, that's important. I think it's key to mention that at Meta, we don't require certification, but we do highly encourage it. And when we're talking about our diverse supplier spend, we're only talking about our certification numbers. So, the spend that we report externally is only what we can validate because someone has a certification. So I think anywhere where we can start to drive more visibility of diverse suppliers, where there's more of a direct exchange of information of what they're doing, what they're providing, and that way we can quickly get that to the decision-makers in our organizations is going to be important. The other part that I would say is there's been talk, and I think this kind of goes back to your systemic question, but we know that access to capital is a big issue for diverse suppliers. It's not the main issue, but it can be an issue for some. And so when we are designing and thinking about our procurement systems, we are a component of what we call the net now movement. So, how do we encourage faster payment terms for diverse suppliers? So, within Meta, usually, you submit an invoice. If you're a diverse supplier, you're tagged in our system. So that means that you get a faster payment terms than everyone else who's net 60, net 90, whatever your contract terms are. And so we recognize that that's important because of the quick turnaround that we need to put that money back into the hands of diverse suppliers because they don't have access to capital in that ways. So I've seen a lot more companies starting to join that movement, the net now movement of getting these faster payment terms for diverse suppliers and really advocating with their senior leaders that this is a change that needs to happen.

Phil Wagner

So my final question is for you, and perhaps you can put your public relations hat back on and really sell this to us. It's no secret there's a lot of diversity fatigue, and alarmingly, we're seeing that fatigue really being weaponized to push back against corporate diversity initiatives. So, I'm wondering if you have advice in your role. Final question here on how we can transform that diversity fatigue into something meaningful, maybe fostering an equitable, inclusive supply chain. I mean, you're all about this work, so sell what we might do with this in the years ahead.

Lamecia Butler

Yeah, I think if we keep the momentum that we have going when we are able to really continue to tell the stories, which will then allow people to have more opportunity and say, people, I mean, diverse suppliers, give them more opportunities to shine, to grow their businesses, to contribute to the economy even more. And that story alone, and if someone's tracking and watching that impact, that can fuel and continue to support. I think it's so important for people to find the champions, but not just find the champions, but promote the champions and tell their stories because everyone's looking at some point to be recognized. So, how do you keep people engaged and involved? I think that's part of it. You can't get tired. Unfortunately, it is a tough journey, but I think there's so much more. And with the more recent conversations we've been talking about, this is the moment to go deeper, to go harder, and to continue down the path that we're going.

Phil Wagner

So good. Thank you. This has been such a stellar conversation. I mean, you bring new insights to me. I walk away with greater clarity. I hope our listeners do, too. Let me say thank you so much for taking time to join Diversity Goes to Work. What a great conversation this was.

Lamecia Butler

Thank you for having me. It's been great.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Josh Miller
Josh MillerEpisode 47: October 23, 2023
Uncovering: Full, Authentic Selves

Josh Miller

Episode 47: October 23, 2023

Uncovering: Full, Authentic Selves

Today we’re joined by Josh Miller. Josh is a queer change-maker, public speaker, photographer, and outdoor explorer. As a two-time TEDx speaker who has engaged Fortune 500 and international audiences from Colorado to Salzburg, he has been called a trailblazing voice that will continue to shape the intersections of people, strategy, the leaders of the future, and DEIA change initiatives. He was honored with the 2022 Non-Profit Visionary Leader Award from the Louisville Business First and was selected for Business Equality Magazine’s 40 LGBTQ+ Leaders Under 40. Miller’s work has been featured by the New York Times, the Aspen Institute, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What is the concept of covering and how does it impact people and companies
  • How being visible shifts culture
  • What were the landmark events in Josh's uncovering story
  • How to think about safety and privilege when uncovering
  • How the pandemic and remote work has strengthened the desire for uncovering amongst workers
  • What it looks like to facilitate an uncovering movement in the workplace
  • The importance of representation in art and media in the public health sector
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today, we're joined by Josh Miller. Josh Miller is a queer change maker, public speaker, photographer. And I love this outdoor explorer, and I hope we can get to that a little bit today. As a two-time TEDx speaker who has engaged Fortune 500 and international audiences from Colorado to Salzburg, he has been called a trailblazing voice that will continue to shape the intersections of people strategy, the leaders of the future, and DEIA change initiatives. He's the founder of Josh Miller Ventures, the co-founder and CEO of IDEAS xLab, and a Soros Equality Fellow. He was honored with the 2022 Nonprofit Visionary Leader Award from the Louisville Business First and was selected for Business Equality Magazine's 40 LGBTQ-plus leaders under 40 and Louisville Business First's 40 under 40. Miller's work has been featured by The New York Times, the Aspen Institute, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and we're excited to host that work here today on Diversity Goes to Work. Josh, welcome to our podcast. Thanks for being here today.

Josh Miller

Thrilled to be here, Phil. Looking forward to our conversation.

Phil Wagner

So I'm really jazzed about this conversation and where we're able to take it. For our listeners, if you're not familiar with Josh's work, one of the first places I would direct you is to Josh's TEDx Talks and one that really stood out to me and the part of Josh's work that sticks out to me focuses on a concept we're going to unpack a little bit more, which is this concept of covering. But before we get there, Josh, I'm certain I botched your bio in some way. You're clearly a person on the move. Tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are what you do, and then let's get into the concept of covering, shall we?

Josh Miller

That sounds great. Your overview was really good. I think for people just now coming to get to know my work. I am originally from the Chattanooga, Tennessee area. I'm the oldest of five kids. My journey to southern Indiana and Kentucky, in part, was because I was out there during my junior year as gay, and there were some religious and components that I had to move. And so I was then in Kentucky for 13 years, and that's where I met my now husband, Thea. That's where I started; co-founded the organization IDEA xLab that I'm now working on, as well as unknown project with my colleague Hannah Dreke and really began my journey as a queer leader to understand who I was, how I could show up and move through the world and how our stories and the different ways that I experience things, the lens I look through, including the literal lens of photography, how all of that can come to bear in impacting, how we show up and the way we connect to each other. And so that's really been some of the foundation of the work that I've been doing.

Phil Wagner

And I appreciate your willingness to share part of your story with us. I'm a big believer that stories really give us context, and I think it's helpful and it certainly has shaped your work on covering. Before we take a journey down that pathway, can we unpack that just a little bit more? Because terminology, things can get lost in the shuffle. When you speak to this concept of covering, what is it that you're speaking to here? What is this concept of covering, and how does it impact people? How does it impact companies? How does it impact our lives and livelihoods?

Josh Miller

So, the topic of covering I define as downplaying, hiding, or filtering parts of ourselves at work could be with different social groups. It can happen at school and even with family. And so, a few years ago, I was introduced to a report from Deloitte called Uncovering Talent. UCLA Williams Institute has also listened to covering. And one of the things I found so compelling about it as a topic, and like you were saying, language is so important. And once we have language to name experiences, that can be so crucial as well. But what I appreciated in that report, and I've been exploring since, is that they found that covering took place across all groups. Straight, white men, LGBTQ folks, women of color, people with disabilities, veterans. And so, as we think about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility, work covering is one of those area that shows up for people so differently. But I would wager that a majority of people experience it. And so that could be changing how you dress and changing how you style your hair to go into the workplace. It could be intentionally not mentioning a same-sex partner or the fact that you have a disability. It could be affiliation-based covering. And so what I have seen and what I've heard through interviews is that people who have covered, whether it's early on in their life as professionals, maybe even over decades, is that that made people feel excluded, exhausted, burned out, stressed, anxious. And so we know from a health and well-being perspective that can have a host of negative impacts on who we are as individuals. For me and my covering and now uncovering journey, which we'll delve into, that's been one of the things that I've really looked at is how can I uncover and actually improve my health and well-being, but also thinking about the ramifications for work. So if I don't feel a sense of belonging in my workplace, I don't have psychological safety, I may not be contributing as well as I could be as a team member, I may be using negative coping strategies that impact how I show up in the work I can do, my ability to innovate, it could impact your decision making, your ability to lead. And so all of that then ripples out to ROI. And there have been studies on the impact of burnout. One study showed that I think it was 30% of someone's salary annually is what it could cost a company if they're feeling burnt out. And covering is one of those contributors that can really lead to that. And so for me, having the language of covering and then really thinking about how multidimensional it can be and how it shows up in people's lives and working to bring forward people's personal stories of what does that look like? How has it impacted you? And then how do we move beyond that? What does an uncovering movement look like? That's really been something over the past few years that's been a focus for me.

Phil Wagner

So the antithesis of covering is sort of visibility, then, right? It is being exactly we often use the almost cliche terminology like being your full and authentic self. But when we really brush past those cliches, as you cite, so important here. So this visibility, of course, we know that it's important, but from your lens or from your work, tell us how visibility or being visible really shifts culture.

Josh Miller

My colleague Ken and I say all the time that we're planting seeds to create trees whose shade we'll never see. And so even going back to a few years ago, I went to Bellarmine University in Kentucky for undergrad, and someone reached out and said, the way you moved through campus as a queer person and as a student who was proud of who they were, really impacted me in being able to come out and being able to self identify in this way. And over the past few years, as the way I've presented has evolved. Parents come up to me in restaurants and ask if they can take photos or they'll DM me on Instagram or on Facebook. And they'll say you know my child, maybe it's their son, maybe they identify differently. My child wants to grow their hair out and paint their nails and wear skirts, and they don't see people in the way that they identify showing up like them. And I show them your photos. I want to show them you being out in a space, living as a queer adult, thriving and being happy, because I want them to know that they can have both. They can show up in the way that and move through the world in the way that they envision moving through it, and also have a professional career have a happy relationship. And so it's been some of those small instances of feedback from people that really just hits on when we see the full spectrum of what's possible for us. We're able to then imagine even beyond what others have imagined for ourselves. And so it's been those smaller proof points and people just reaching out and sharing those things. It's like, okay, well, there can be a lot of challenges in being visible, but you're also slowly permeating and shifting. Some of those cultural norms and some of those mental models and mindsets for what people think. That's how a man should look. That's how a professional should look. And so when I think about the impact of visibility on shifting culture, that's what I think about. I think it can be a trickle. That takes a while, but that continual reiteration of what's possible can have that shift.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love this. You're using your story as a sort of figurative pen to rewrite, to recodify those norms, those ideals, those expectations. And I'm a big believer in storytelling, and that reduces it to such a ridiculous level. But I've seen the power of stories to shake change, and so I'm wondering, as much as you're willing for our listeners, can you talk a little bit about your own uncovering journey? You've alluded to different pockets throughout your history that seem to be pretty significant obstacles that you've had to overcome. Can you share your story with us, broadly speaking, about uncovering in your own way?

Josh Miller

Absolutely. Like I said, I grew up Chattanooga, Tennessee area, was homeschooled up until 10th grade, oldest of five. And it was a community where boys didn't take ballet because then you were viewed as gay, and being gay was a sin. And so there were a lot of those early mental models that got built up about what was possible, how I could move through the world, what I could look like, what I, quote-unquote, should be. If you look back at photos of me as a two or three-year-old, I was the kiddo that was in diapers with heels on and a shower cap, playing with makeup. And so slowly, all of that started to get chipped away at. And I was outed before junior year of high school. And the long story short is that by the beginning of senior year, the options were move out, try to figure it out in Chattanooga on my own, or move in with my aunt and cousins in southern Indiana. And I'm extremely grateful that I had family to be able to move in with so I could finish high school. And through that move is when I was in a lot of art classes. I was doing photography, and I met someone. Her name was Amelia. She's a painter and an artist, and she was the first one that got me into doing makeup. And I was like, oh, this is a form of self-expression that I can use, and this is working for me. And so that kind of began my journey of just testing out different ways of showing up as a queer person. But even then, and sometimes it's even from within the community, right? Those ideas of what should a man or what should a gay masculine man look like. Still got still infiltrated, and people would make small comments about like, do you really need to wear that much eyeshadow? Or maybe you should leave your leather purse in the car when we go into this event. And it continued to reinforce feelings of inadequacy and, like, I couldn't be who I envisioned myself to be. And so in starting the nonprofit IDEA xLab that I currently still lead. That's when there was some of it was unconscious, but covering taking place. I had always wanted to grow my hair out, but I kept my hair short. I wore less makeup. I wore a suit and bow tie and wingtips and really tried to fit into what I thought I was supposed to be as a nonprofit gay male professional. And what I developed early on in terms of high school as a coping mechanism and then due to covering was a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol. So that was how I coped. I was like, well, I need alcohol to be more social, and it helps me not to think about the things that I wish I could, the parts of myself I would love to bring into the world that I can't, or I didn't feel like I could. And it got to a place where the drinking in and of itself, every time, it was kind of like rolling a dice. Am I going to get a DUI? Am I going to hurt someone? Is it going to damage a relationship? Where am I going to take control of it? And that was also kind of happening as I was trying to re-understand how I could move through the world as a professional. And it's a privilege to lead a small organization and to be able to say, okay, well, I'm going to start switching out scarves for bow ties. I'm going to wear more eyeshadow. I'm going to grow my hair out. I'm going to start to do all of these things and physically change how I move through the world so that I can feel different and feel better about it and feel more connected to my work and to the people that I'm working with. And so the past five to six years, even though I didn't have the language of covering then, was me starting to uncover those parts of myself, trying to rewrite those outdated mental models, redefine my relationships with people to what does it mean to be social without alcohol. It's so much better for me personally. And so I've been really thankful for that. And also then starting to encounter what does my role look like for the educational piece and kind of empathy building but also helping to expand other people's viewpoints. So people can't see me right now. But I have very long, wavy brown hair. I have on makeup. I'm a more slender build and dress more androgynous, even skewing feminine. And so people misgender me all the time. Like, I'd say, 99 out of 100 strangers will call me ma'am. And that even happens when I go to the bathroom. People will physically stand in my way and be like, do you know where you're going? Or they will see me in the bathroom. They will walk back outside to make sure they read the sign correctly and then come back in. And so it's this ongoing process of trying to understand that people are coming from a place of not knowing, and it not being from, by and large, a hateful place, but a place of they haven't encountered people who look different than what they believed you're supposed to look like. And so I kind of put tie those two things together of for me and what my role is as a human, is actively uncovering and imagining a different future, but also supporting through stories and just through continuously educating people. How do we expand these mindsets, and then what are the implications for that expanded mindset for inclusive workplaces?

Phil Wagner

I love this, and you get at so many important points. I share your sentiment that most of the blowback does not come from a malicious place. There is some right, and so I don't want to give too big.

Josh Miller

Absolutely, there absolutely is.

Phil Wagner

And we'll talk about that. But I think a lot of this really just comes from ignorance, a lack of awareness, a lack of exposure, which is what I think that your work gets at. I'm hoping we can get to some of that. More on the nose pushback. I'm reminded as we look back in 2023, some high profile case studies in, specifically LGBTQ plus pushback, we're looking at the Targets of the world. We're looking at the Bud Lights of the world. And I think that context shows this may not always be a safe environment for you to uncover. How does your work teach us to think about factoring in safety on one hand? And then I think that also brings up a point on privilege as well, which is a word you used earlier. Certain economic access, certain cultural communities may be more right for you to sort of uncover fully or maybe only uncover partially. And so how do you grapple with safety issues, with intersectional privilege issues? How do you think about those within your work, Josh?

Josh Miller

From a safety perspective, I certainly think for each individual that varied, there are definitely scenarios, especially if it's a very masculine bro culture, feeling places and alcohol is involved, that I will avoid going to the bathroom. There are places where it is about self-protection. And so for each person, no matter how they're identifying and they're wanting to and thinking about uncovering, that is part of what you have to process through. And my hope with engaging people in this conversation about covering and engaging straight white men in the conversation of covering and people who don't identify as LGBTQ plus but have covered in their own ways. I think that normalizing that as a conversation, in general, helps us to shift it's not just, and yes, right now it's Pride Month, the examples you gave are LGBTQ plus specific, but it's a bigger realm of work that we collectively have to do. And so by looking to some of these other groups who have experienced covering as well, in whatever way that looks like for them, but if they're engaging actively in that dialogue, there's a different level of understanding of what each other needs in terms of support and in terms of the space that we create for each other. So, as I've actively been uncovering and, my colleague Hannah, she's a poet, and she has a quote that she says, someone is waiting for you to be all that you can be so that they were all that they were destined to be. And so this is a mindset, not just of mine, but of Hannah's, of our teams. And we even engage our board in this as a process of what does covering look like for each of you, and then what does uncovering look like as a cultural norm, and how do we articulate it? Because part of what I think was the Target example was the fear for employees. And I do recognize that as a reality. I also think that there are things that they, as a corporation, can do internally to assess what additional supports they can put in place for employees while also saying our value, if it is inclusion and equity for the LGBTQ-plus community, is to stand firm and not to cower. So, I look at what North Face has done with their collaboration with Patagonia, and it has been a national campaign. And they have really just continued to push it forward and stand in the value of this is a population that is part of our team, it's part of our community, it's who we collaborate and create with, and we want to prioritize how we can uplift you. And so I think that's really important. And I think from a privilege perspective, getting back to who is sharing their experiences of covering, I think some of the onus comes on to people with more privilege to recognize where covering is having to take people feel like they have to cover in the workplace for whatever reason, and being the proactive ones to say, here's an experience I've had, I am interested in creating a space that is welcoming. If you don't feel like there's a part of you, you can bring to the office right now, and I'm going to work collaboratively with you and as a team, as a corporation, to set the tone for this and to stand accountable to it. And so if you're in those places of power, I think you being a convener and being vulnerable is really important as part of that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I appreciate the multidimensionality and the nuance, and then that's what I appreciate so much about your work, and this really does benefit all of us. Right? I appreciate how you engaged broader stakeholder groups beyond your own story or your own experiences to show that this is something that applies to all of us. I want to get back to another part of your work, which is on sort of the wellness imperative for this. I think this has huge implications for the post-COVID-19 workforce. So, can you share a little bit more about how the pandemic and then just the broader sociopolitical environment writ large has really impacted or pressed for the need for uncovering and really honing in and valuing explicitly your employees' unique lived experiences?

Josh Miller

I find this intersection so fascinating. It's been really interesting to just see the stories and proof points that have come out on one side and then how so many larger corporations and just different leaders across different sectors are responding. And so what we saw during COVID, especially with remote work, but there was a survey in 2021 that found that it was like 95 97% of Black knowledge workers wanted to keep remote or hybrid work options. And in part, that was because they didn't have to cover or code switch as much when they weren't going into the office five days a week. And so that is a significant number of people who saw I can operate differently or relate to my work differently. Do my work differently by not having to show up because the space that I'm being asked to come into was not built for me. So that's a proof point that is really interesting. And when I did a talk for a Sherm chapter in Kentucky a few months ago and, one of the attendees, who was a black male leader, said I hadn't actually processed and thought about how much of an impact and relief I had from remote work and not having to code switch and cover. And that's just another example of why, for that person and more broadly rethinking what does this look like for us, than you also had with the past few years, people took the opportunity to transition. So if they were remote working, maybe they were finally able to transition from male to female, female to male. However, they identify now. And so they are literally showing up in the workplace whenever they are called back into the workplace or in their hybrid spaces as different and more authentic people. The teams are getting to meet a new individual but moving beyond just LGBT. Also, think about just the fact that people's body change, body sizes change, people's work preferences, and ability to work in very loud environments. All of these different things evolved, and social stamina was also significantly impacted. I don't know about you, but I'm generally like pre-COVID, I was very extroverted. I recharged by being around people. Like, I could go all week face to face with people. It was fabulous. 2022, my husband and I go to the Cross Atlantic Creativity Congress in Salzburg. And that was our first full day. All day convening in person. And by the end, I was completely zapped. I mean, completely just exhausted. And I still, a year over a year later, haven't rebuilt. I still am recharging differently than I did before. And nature plays a huge part in that and outdoor exploration. But those are all things that now, as we think about what does the new paradigm of work and connection look like that, we have to take into account. And if we aren't actively talking about. What does uncovering look like so that we have physical spaces people can step into? Then we're expecting them to revert back to people that they were three to four years ago that don't exist anymore. And so that's really been one of those things as I think about that intersection and then how it translates to people's health and well-being. Many people are valuing their time differently. They're prioritizing things differently, putting different boundaries in place. And for the companies who are really recognizing that and championing and supporting that and putting a structure in place for that, it's going to be really interesting to see how the workforce responds.

Phil Wagner

So, let's take the conversation in that direction. And I don't know if this is an allyship question, which seems just honestly so performative and gross. I don't know if this is a leadership question. What does it look like to facilitate an uncovering movement in the workplace? Whose responsibility is that, and how does that even sort of take shape and actually unfold?

Josh Miller

So, I think it can take shape in a few different ways. And one of the words that comes to mind for me is accomplice. So when going back to my colleague Hannah, for example, she's a black woman, I am white. And so we actively think about in spaces that we move in together, how we act as an accomplice for each other. How can I be strategic in the conversations I step into and bringing with me historical information about enslavement or racism or engaging people and shifting paradigms about what they're thinking about because they may be more receptive hearing it from me? And Hannah may step into conversation and be like, well, Josh gets misgendered all the time, and I'm going to go, actually. And this actually happened when we were at a conference. A waitress came over greeted our whole table as lady, and I was exhausted. I did not feel like correcting anybody right then, so I just let it go. And a few minutes later, Hannah just quietly got up and went and found the waitress and was like, when you come back to the table, if you could please greet us in a gender-neutral way, that would be great because we're not all ladies. And then just came and sat back down. And so thinking about how we can honor what each other needs and be the bearer of information to engage our stakeholders in change, I think, is really important. So, one way that I've seen is a whole team or a group coming to a workshop that is designed as a space for people to get vulnerable and having the leadership be willing to share what their experiences have been. Maybe they're starting with how COVID impacted them. What did they learn about themselves? What changed? Have they uncovered parts of who they are because of that and demonstrating what is possible? An example, Hannah and I led a workshop a few years ago, and covering was one of the topics that we were focused on. And by the time we got to the afternoon, there was a group of 50ish. One of the employees who had been there for a number of years said, well, I have a disability. And it's not readily visible to you all. And I've never shared it because I wasn't sure if I could. But now, because I see you all actively engaging in this conversation, I'm sharing it with you all as an active contributor and wanting to see a shift in what this culture looks like. And so I think that becomes part of it. Are leaders willing to be introspective of themselves, be vulnerable, and then set the tone for here's what our expectations are? And we want to create a space where if you have ADHD, or you're neurodiverse, or you have a disability, or you have a same-sex partner, all of these things, there is space for them here, and they have informed the lived experience that you have that better allows our company to perform and do our work. And so, for me, that's where the conversations can start.

Phil Wagner

And I see that as benefiting literally everybody, right? I mean, those who have needed to closet themselves in a variety of different outlets, not just talking about sexuality. That's better for veterans who are reintegrating into the workforce and may have complex experiences that they are not ready to unpack but may slowly feel more comfortable to do so if they choose because of this uncovering. This impacts those who come to the workforce later in life. Those who have impostor syndrome. This benefits everybody with little to no harm. It's not easy in practice, but it's a great way to just start to set this is who we are. You can come here and be who you are because that's who we are. Again, I appreciate what this looks like in practice, and I hope that folks will continue to take your message and actually turn it into practical outcomes for their organizations and for their own lives. Let's talk a little bit about two other areas of interest that you have, and those certainly intersect as well. You mentioned the lens of the camera earlier, and I want to get a little bit to your work using arts-based methodology and storytelling to really shape the narrative in this way. Can you share a little bit more about that art and storytelling imperative here, too?

Josh Miller

So over the past few years, through our work at IDEAS xLAB, the organization started with the broader premise of how can we create and advocate for expanded roles for artists, not to make a bigger mural, not to sing a better song, but to say we have a creative lens through which to see the world. And we can help companies innovate. We can help communities collaborate and create change. We can help use art to impact policy. And so that was the genesis of where our organization is working now. So, using the Art of Storytelling community collaboration to impact Public health. And one of the efforts that we've worked on over the past few years has looked at using arts-based community engagement to create public health messaging. Because in so many communities, you see in maybe stock photos with some stats about high blood pressure, but you're not hearing from the community about the specific topic in a way that demonstrates that their experience with that topic is valued. Their lived experience is important. And so we've been working for the past five years with Louisville Metro Department of Public Health to host arts-based community events and to work with community members to say, what do you think about this topic? So, for example, the most recent campaign is on health equity, housing justice, and childhood lead poisoning prevention, something I honestly never thought I would be working at. But in engaging community members, it's what do you want for your community? What do you want to see in your community? What is your community worthy of? And how do you want to protect your kids and protect each other and advocate for that change? And so coming out of that has been billboards and digital ads that feature the faces of community members, quotes from community members, all focused on some of those public health areas. And what we've seen is that digital ads have performed 300 and, in some instances, up to 1000% better than the industry standard. We saw a significant increase in people going to access the public health resources, and we also saw an increase in children being tested for lead poisoning. And so that is a demonstration of when you are valuing what the community brings in terms of their voice and solutions that drives, on the other end, public health outcomes, in terms of people accessing resources, pursuing this improved environment for each other, for their children, for future generations. And so I'm really excited to see we'll be doing multiple future campaigns and making them more and more multilingual. So really getting to see how can this approach be adapted based on the communities that we collaborate with. But that's just one example of that intersection of arts and public health.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And you mentioned the word environment, which cues me into another area that you sort of emphasize, which is outdoor exploration. And I'm a fitness enthusiast and constantly outside if I'm not on this podcast or teaching. So, can you talk a little bit more about outdoor exploration and how that has factored into this conversation and ultimately made you a stronger leader?

Josh Miller

Absolutely, yes. Outdoor, I probably started running. I guess it's been about 15 years ago now. And when I started running, I combined it with photography. So I'd run. I would document where I was going and go to all different types of neighborhoods. But then I started training. I did a mini-marathon. I did a full marathon. I ran in the Gay Games, and now I'm out in Denver, Colorado, with access to 14ers and cycling in the Front Range and in the mountains. And part of the ethos that I had moved through the world with was really distilled well in a quote from Josh Watkin from The Art of Learning and he said, the most important thing is to be in a state of constant learning and to be open to new opportunities and new ideas. And so what my outdoor explorations continues to reiterate is or even build on are skills of planning and preparation. It's a different type of planning and preparation than maybe planning for the strategy of an organization or the implementation of a project. But you're priming all of those different mental pathways to do that type of work to be adaptive. The weather changes, you get a flat tire, all of these different unknown circumstances at play. How do you plan for those? How do you prepare for those? And so it creates all of these different transferable skills and also reiterates the ongoing question of what are we capable of. What is our body capable of? What is our mind capable of? What can they do together? And I think all of that really helps me to be inspired by and also challenged to think even bigger in the work that I'm doing. And so going out for a hike. However, I'm out exploring really does reiterate the well-being component and has also been a way of saying, however, my body needs to move through the world or needs to appear to move through the world. And whatever clothes I have to find to be able to make that happen, all of those are okay in that place. So it's kind of a place of where some of that uncovering if that's the first place where you can go and even just be by yourself and imagine something different. There's possibility for that there, too.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love how this brings the conversation full circle, too, as you talk about capabilities and really, like, unquestioned capabilities. And that only happens when we first engage in that uncovering process. And so, again, I appreciate the conversation on authenticity. I appreciate the conversation on Covering and Uncovering. I appreciate the work that you do. Final question for you today, Josh, is how can our listeners follow the work that you're doing? How can they support the work they're doing, and what's next for you?

Josh Miller

In terms of staying connected? They're welcome to connect with me on LinkedIn. They can go to my website, www.joshmiller.ventures. I am also on Instagram and Facebook. They're less utilized, but I am still on there. In terms of what's on the horizon. If people are interested in engaging their workforce in thinking about what could an Uncovering movement look like, how do we bring this language and some of these processes to their teams? Whether it's through speaking or workshops, I'd love to explore that, and I would also love to hear people's stories. I've been doing an Uncovering Your Value newsletter on LinkedIn that I publish every few weeks, and I've been interviewing people from Senator Cynthia Mindy's to the next upcoming one will be a leader from Vimeo. And so just people from nonprofits, from political, from across the arena, higher ed. Really trying to demonstrate how broadly covering impacts us and what the potential is if we can uncover together.

Phil Wagner

Josh, I appreciate your time. Again, appreciate the work that you do. Thanks for joining us on our podcast today. A true privilege to speak with you.

Josh Miller

Had a great time loved being here. Thanks, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Bertina Ceccarelli & Susanne Tedrick
Bertina Ceccarelli & Susanne TedrickEpisode 46: October 9, 2023
Innovating for Diversity

Bertina Ceccarelli & Susanne Tedrick

Episode 46: October 9, 2023

Innovating for Diversity

If you're a business leader or corporate executive and you have your hands in your organization's DEI work, right now, you're probably pretty bewildered. The world seems to be spinning faster than ever before, and if you're an organization, it's pretty difficult right now to know which stakeholder demands you respond to and also which do you respond to the fastest. Our guests today have some ideas on how to ground your organization's DEI efforts to sustainability, in authenticity, in transparency, and in innovation. Bertina Ceccarelli is the CEO of NPower, a leading non-profit in empowering your adults and military-connected individuals to kickstart their tech careers, and Susanne Tedrick is a celebrated writer and speaker devoted to celebrating diversity in tech.

Podcast (audio)

Bertina Ceccarelli & Susanne Tedrick: Innovating for Diversity TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Susanne and Bertina came to collaborate on their book
  • Why are there still gaps in representation in high-growth segments of the economy
  • Why it's important to make DEI initiatives personal
  • What are some of the disruptions to innovation in the DEI space
  • Are there social moments that are more ripe for DEI innovation than others
  • What are the five cultural characteristics that are necessary for innovation
  • How to measure the results of DEI initiatives and why it's important
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. If you're a business leader or corporate executive and you have your hands in any way in your organization's DEI work right now, you're probably pretty bewildered. Indeed, the world seems to be spinning faster than ever before. And if you're an organization, it's pretty difficult right now to know which stakeholder demands you respond to and also which you respond to the fastest. Our guests today have some tools for your toolkit based on their work. Interview studies with leaders from Fortune 100 companies, small businesses, and everywhere in between. Our guests have some ideas how to ground your organization's DEI efforts in sustainability, in authenticity, in transparency, and key to their work in innovation. We've got two guests joining us today. Our first is Bertina Ceccarelli, the transformative CEO of N Power, a leading nonprofit empowering young adults and military-connected individuals to kickstart their tech careers. She's a pioneer in bridging socioeconomic mobility gaps and comes from humble beginnings, ultimately rising to earn degrees from UC Berkeley and Harvard Business School. Her passion for making a positive societal impact extends to her various roles in strategic alliance organizations, and she's been recognized as a tech industry's brightest superstar by US black engineer. You'll also hear the voice of our second guest today, Susanne Tedrick. A celebrated writer and speaker committed to promoting diversity in tech. She's author of the critically acclaimed Women of Color in Tech. Susanne champions the inclusion of women and people of color in the tech sphere. She's the winner of Comp Tia's Inaugural Diversity and Technology Leadership Award and an active coalition member of N Power's Command Shift Initiative. She's currently an executive MBA candidate at NYU's Stern School of Business. Susanne Bertina, what a pleasure it is to speak with you today. Thank you for coming onto our podcast. I hope I got your bios right, but just so our listeners can hear your voice and get comfortable with you and the work you do, do you mind sharing a little bit more about who you are and how you came to partner in developing this important work on innovation in the DEI space?

Susanne Tedrick

Well, Phil, thank you. It's a sincere pleasure. And yeah, just to round out the wonderful introduction. So, I am based out in New York City and trying to balance my day job as a technical trainer but then going to school as an executive MBA candidate. I joke with people. I'm either an inspiration or a cautionary tale. We'll see which one plays out. But, I did have the pleasure of writing Women of Color in Tech back in 2019, where it was published in 2020. That book is mostly kind of a guide for women of color who are looking to come into the tech industry but are maybe not familiar about what are the ways to get in, what are the different types of careers you can have in tech, and what are some tools and some strategies based off my own transition into technology. For the better part of ten years, I actually worked in finance, mostly in admin and operations-type roles, which paid well but were very boring. I needed to find something that spoke to my true passions and my true strengths, and ended up having the opportunity to write that book on my transition. During the writing of that book was introduced through my publicist at the time, book publicist, to Bertina and NPower, which does phenomenal, phenomenal work on bringing more people of color and military veterans within the tech industry. It just so happens they were celebrating women of color in Tech Day, and our publicist was like, Well, I got somebody that you should. So Bertina and I have been collaborating on a number of different projects, including this ever since.

Phil Wagner

Wonderful. Bertina, tell us your side of the story.

Bertina Ceccarelli

Yeah, so, Phil, it was just such an amazing moment. That day, it was, in fact, just prior to the shutdown because of the pandemic. It was March of 2020, and we were on the steps of Borough Hall in Brooklyn, New York. Then Everett Guomo had just assigned March 12 as women of color in Tech Day. It was an important proclamation, and it was such a delight when Susanne's Publicist, who was also working for a local congresswoman, ran up and said, I know the person who literally wrote the book Women of Color in Tech, and I thought, I got to meet this person. And it was just such a pleasure to get to know Susanne. And I had the opportunity she invited me to serve on a panel that she was doing in promotion of the book Women of Color in Tech on Allyship. And the acquisition editor of Wiley happened to be in the audience and suggested the two of us think about writing what would be Susanne's book number two and my first. And it has been an outstanding collaboration. And she and I both, of course, do have these day jobs, and yet it was driven by a lot of passion. And I think such a deep interest in the topic and the pursuit of the research and the interviews is, I think, what really brings this book to life. Because I think, unlike a lot of books on DEI, this gets deep into case studies with companies as big as Accenture and Fitti and as small as a construction supply company in Arkansas, in recognition that businesses of all sizes can benefit from really thoughtful and, yes, innovative strategies for DEI.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I had the opportunity to review the book about two months ago, and love the depth and the nuance. Those cases are so helpful. And while your experience comes from tech, really, the lessons learned apply to really anybody in a high-growth sector. And so that's really where I hope to focus our attention today, and we teed this up at the beginning. But my question as we begin our conversation is that look. We know that DEI practices, or at least good intentional DEI practices, advance the bottom line. They make organizations better. And then there's a variety of nuanced conversations surrounding that, where there's a legal imperative, there's a moral imperative, yet we still see some glaring gaps in representation, particularly in those high-growth segments of the economy. Why? Does your work give us insight?

Susanne Tedrick

Yeah, I think there's a myriad of reasons there that I wouldn't say is just one thing, but I'll highlight a few things. So the first is, when it comes to the development of DEI programs and initiatives, there is this almost check-the-box mentality.

Phil Wagner

Say that again.

Susanne Tedrick

Check it off the list. It's like so I've done X, therefore I've solved my problem. I no longer need to think about this, and I can move on to the next thing. And that would be great in a lot of things in life. Just check a box, and you're done. DEI is not one of those things. DEI is really, for lack of a better term. It is a journey because not only is it where you are at the time, but where you become. And at all businesses go through different growth and changes, and your DEI strategy has to evolve with that. So I think there is just this changing of mentality. There's also the compliance mindset. I have to comply with doing this because said regulator, said outside party, is saying I should. And the problem with this type of approach is that you don't care. In fact, the person that did our forward, Michael C. Bush, who is the CEO of Great Place to Work, during a conversation that we had, he said it really best. You have to make it personal. You really do. If you do it from a standpoint of I'm telling you to do it, you'll see the results bear themselves out over and over and over again. And so trying to have that compliance standpoint, I think, can be detrimental to that number of other factors. But Bertina, if there's anything you want to add here.

Bertina Ceccarelli

Yeah, I would just know the thing that we discovered in so many of our interviews that when companies do take, as Susanne calls it, the check-the-box approach to diversity, they're ignoring underlying root causes. Right. And this is why we thought the frame of innovation was such an important lens to write this book through because any good innovator is going to really look at what is the real problem I'm trying to solve, and that begins to get to systems. And a lot of companies and leaders will shy away from wholesale systems change. And yet that require in so many respects for DEI not only to work, but to be long lasting, right? And to have this sort of organizational commitment and to have it baked into the DNI over a period of time. So that became kind of a foundational issue or idea that we really plumbed in the book and brought to life, I think, of the case studies where, in fact, we do get to the personal. Right. So many of the leaders we profile have their own stories for why thinking creatively about the DEI implementation was important to them as leaders.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and that's key. I love the role storytelling. It anchors so much of what we talk about on this podcast. And that problem-solving orientation that anchors innovation is key. But I think your work also speaks to so many other dimensions of innovation as well. What does it mean to bring something of novelty to this space? What does it mean to bring something that really creates real value? Beyond that, check the box orientation. What does it mean to actually show up and take some risks, to do some calculated change-making in this space? In your work, you talk about some of the biggest barriers that get in the way of an innovative approach or get in the way of innovation, especially those related to or connected to DEI. Can you share a little bit more about those disruptions to innovation?

Bertina Ceccarelli

Yeah. And again, let's just start at the root level of innovation for a moment. And this is innovation. Whether you think about new product design, you think about new organizational structures or capital structures, as well as DEI. But the three factors that we see repeatedly inhibiting innovation is, first, just inertia, right? We got a lot of things we got to get done in this company, and somehow, the innovation or the longer-range planning that can lead to a later innovation where investment is required today falls further and further on the list. Second is, it's not prioritized. Right? And perhaps the executives are compensated for product sales today. Everybody's doing well. Why take a risk? The third that's connected is what I'll call arrogant, but really, it's the absence of humility. And when you think about humility, when you adopt that characteristic as an organizational trait and as part of your culture, it inspires a lot of questions. Right. You're in a position where you don't always have to have all the answers. And when you open yourself up to questions, you can get really good at problem-solving, which then, in turn, leads to new approaches and new ideas for how you do your business how you think about your customers and your clients. And that's where innovation rises to the surface.

Phil Wagner

One of the things I'm trying to grapple with as we talk about risk is are there, let's say, social moments that are more ripe for innovation than others. I can't help but think about kind of a case study we've chatted a lot about, which is Target. And as you might remember, in June of 2023, as Target prepared for the launch of Pride Month, they introduced a variety of LGBTQ-plus friendly and forward-facing apparel, speaking their values. And they took a little bit of a calculated risk in creating a message that was maybe a little bit more direct than it ever had been, at least from a consumer perspective. And they got a lot of backlash. And this isn't an indictment whether that was a good or bad business decision, but I think it's a testament. It's a great case to show how divisive this political and social moment really is. Is there anything in your work that helps us figure out when it's the right time to take risks, or is it always the right time to take risks? How do we take that risk? How do we go for it? How do we jump all in but also recognize that this is a complicated space?

Susanne Tedrick

So we spent a good bit of time in the beginning part of the book talking about the impact of George Floyd, the immediate aftermath of that of the proclamations that businesses were making, and then the subsequent, well, what has actually happened in the subsequent two, three years after that, and coupled with the hate crimes that were happening against Asian American and Pacific Islanders all surrounded in the same time period. And those are great opportunities to take risks, I think, for many companies, because while it's great to condemn what's happening in the world, while it's great to say, this is awful, this is evil, then in saying we're committed to doing something about it, it's really making sure that, okay, carry it out. Let's see what bears out from that. And even if it's not the transformational change that we were expecting, because that's the other thing to remember about innovation. Sometimes in our work, sometimes it doesn't always go exactly the way we want it, or it doesn't come as quickly as we'd like it, but nonetheless, we're better for having taken the risk and try and improve and get better than to just be complacent. So I think opportunities such as what happened after George Floyd, kind of what's happening with the remote work, if you know, conversation, I think these are ripe opportunities for companies to take a step back and think about, well, how do we innovate to not only find great talent but to keep them? So, I think that leaders should be brave to take those opportunities.

Phil Wagner

Your work mentions some of the reasons why organizational DEI efforts flounder or fail or just like don't land. Is it just this? Is it just, oops, we made the wrong calculated risk, we made the wrong decision? Oh, shoot. Or are there more dimensions to why those efforts flounder or fail?

Susanne Tedrick

Yeah, there's several. And I think part of that is when you fail, rather than kind of doing a runback and saying, well, what parts worked, what parts didn't? And really kind of bearing down on, well, let's make the good parts better and continue to improve. I think those are missed opportunities for sure. I think people make the argument there's not enough money, not enough time, not enough people, not a priority. And looking at DEI as a cost center versus something that can be transformational for the business, if not an imperative for the business.

Bertina Ceccarelli

I would just quickly add to that, too, which is not approaching it as a business problem, right? And tackling it with the same level of energy, commitment, and resources that you would any sort of business proposition. Right. And we kind of go back to your examples of Target, of Bud Light, you know, the sort of market assessment of what is it that we really want to accomplish with this campaign? Or, in the case of DEI, what are the metrics that we expect to achieve short-term, medium-term, longer-term? What kind of leadership commitment do we have? How do we make that unwavering? How do we operationalize it at every level of the company? And while taking risks, as Susanne said, sometimes there's going to be some setbacks, it doesn't imply we're going to stop. We're going to learn from it. We'll adjust, and we'll move on, and we'll try something different the next time. But the overall vision for what we have as a company for DEI efforts remains the same.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And your work shows us that this isn't a copy-paste effort from one organization to another. Right. Different organizations, different sectors, different industries, different localities are going to face different obstacles. You talk a little bit about this as you talk about the unique obstacles that small businesses face when it comes to implementing DEI. Can you share a little bit more about that for our listeners who might find themselves in the small business space?

Susanne Tedrick

Yeah, so I think one of the biggest challenges for small business is that you don't have resources and scale. So, while leaders may very much care about diversity, equity, and inclusion if you don't necessarily have the money or the people who are trained to do this, then you're kind of at a loss, so to speak. In addition, it also has to think about, well, what is your local community? What does diversity look like for where you are? And that's why we say it's incredibly important to recognize where you are as an organization versus trying to do what the Targets are doing or what Citibank is doing. Because they're not even just different industries, but just completely different cultures and ways of doing things and things that we have to think about. So Bertina talked about the construction supply company earlier, and so they're small, less than 30-person office based out in Arkansas. And so what that looks like for them is going to be entirely different. They're also not necessarily going to have people who are educated on diversity, equity, and inclusion. So the leader there was great and incredible about, well, I don't know. So I'm going to find the resources, and if leaders are enterprising enough, there's always going to be some resources and organizations that they can reach out to to be able to help them on that. So that particular leader went to their Economic Development Council, who was hosting a specialized program on diversity, equity, and inclusion and how to implement that within their organization, and not only providing the basis, rather, of the DEI education, but really, what does DEI look like for you? Year one, year two, and year five, and coming up with a plan with actual metrics?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you mentioned in your work if it's not measured, it doesn't matter. And I want to get to that in a second, but I kind of want to back up to some of the framing that I think we missed because there's so much to unpack in this work right as we talked that it's not a copy paste experience, but there are, according to you, five cultural characteristics that are more universal and enduring, that are necessary for innovation to take place. Can we unpack those five cultural characteristics just a bit?

Bertina Ceccarelli

Yeah. We approach this from what is the culture that you need to actively promote as a leader to be able to help innovation thrive, and within that, DEI thrive. And remarkably, what drives innovation culturally is not too different from what drives DEI. And that's first and foremost, trust. Second, a culture of collaboration across an organization. Third is appropriate risk-taking. Fourth is courage. And fifth, and perhaps the most important, is leadership. That's not leadership just of the CEO or C suite leaders, but leaders across an organization who have the fortitude and, yes, the courage to be able to say, I think I have an idea to do things differently. And I'm going to figure out ways to get support for the people who I need support from. To pilot, to test, to try in an effort to make my part of the organization operate better by applying some new concepts and, ideas, and strategies for DEI.

Phil Wagner

Those are so helpful, and I think they're a nice North Star when taken together. Right? Things to keep your eye on. Let's go back to that measurement element here, too, because this is a tricky one. You're right. If it's not measured, it doesn't matter. And I want to talk about what that means in terms of DEI initiatives, but also when we look to, for instance, the ESG space, there's been a lot of clamor to measure, measure, measure. And measurement is not a proxy for real progress. So you can measure a lot and not accomplish. How can we couch both perspectives here? Measurement matters, but it's also measurement alone is not action. So, what does your work tell us about how to grapple with those dueling realities?

Susanne Tedrick

Yeah, so measurement does matter. You wouldn't invest in a multimillion-dollar project if you didn't set up some key performance indicators of where you expect to be and your actual performance. Again, applying that more business mindset. We have to apply the same thing to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We don't want to make programs and initiatives where we're not doing the thing that we're intending to do. Maybe in the stretch of developing a program, we might actually find that we are negatively impacting certain audiences or certain people. And having this measurement helps us to better understand where do I pivot, where do I improve, where do I double down on, and why it's so very important to make sure that we're integrating that within these programs. I realize that outside of the United States, it's a little harder because it's not. Laws usually kind of prevent them from kind of measuring certain demographics and metrics, but there is kind of that push to get towards that because we can't see the change that we intend unless we're measuring it and making weeks in progress and having conversations about it. So, for me, it's a starting point. It should never be just the, okay, here's the data. Here you go. We need to have very good, transparent conversations about that. So if we do need to make changes to our programs, we do that together so that we get towards the metrics that we're trying to get to.

Phil Wagner

And what is it that we're measuring? So, you mentioned the demographic measurement schema here. Is it just demographics? Are we looking at attitude and sentiment? I mean, what are you recommending in terms of actual measurement outcomes or KPIs?

Susanne Tedrick

So, taking, for example, one of the things that Bertina and I talked about during the course of the book was talking about advancement for employees of color. And so we saw that there was not a real problem of advancing employees of color when we were talking about more entry-level-type jobs. But as we started to see what was happening of them trying to move through the ranks, getting to mid-level and maybe senior-level positions, it started to get a little scary. We started seeing statistics about for black employees. Their average tenure rate in most middle positions or early professional positions is anywhere from two to three years. And that's an important conversation when we talk about inclusion. So it's one thing to recruit people of color, but then this leads to the larger question: what are we doing to keep them? What are we doing to retain them and to really advance them in the organization and set them up for a success? So it's not just a measurement of just, again, those demographics, but really getting under the hood and kind of seeing these metrics that really matter.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you've got under the hood. You talk about three reasons that employees often leave their place of employment. Do you share what those are?

Susanne Tedrick

Bertina, would you like to?

Bertina Ceccarelli

Yeah, I will come back, if you don't mind, just for those reasons. But I want to just go a little bit deeper on this idea of measurement, though, because there's a great example of worldwide technology of exactly how they approached this issue of measurement but connected it also to all the strategies to help move those numbers. But just in short, the gentleman who is really operating at the leadership level of DEI meets once a week, every Monday morning, with the CEO and the executive team. First item on the agenda is, how are we doing? How are our DEI strategies working or not within the organization? And they review numbers and they review what are the programs that are working and what's not. And when they first started doing this, they had some very ambitious goals and realized, okay, maybe this isn't quite the right approach, but if we can achieve a 1% gain in diversity and they measure diversity very, very broadly, over the course of ten years, we're going to double the number of diverse leaders within the organization. And for that organization, given the extreme growth rate, this is a company that is doubling every five years in terms of revenue and personnel. When you can point to that kind of progress, it's meaningful. And I say that it sounds like, oh, 1% a year. That's nothing. But so many of the corporate examples that we looked at, they would have a huge announcement, right, that the CEO, particularly the weight of the murder of George Floyd, made all sorts of big commitments but then backtracked. So, the announcement alone, right? The CEO statement alone is not what's going to really yield consistent, measurable support, unlike, say, the more quiet, long-term commitment of a company like WWT. But to go back to your other question regarding the three reasons we find people leaving companies, and this was bore out in our own conversations, but SHRM, the Society for HR Management, did a survey late 2022 that revealed 74% number one reason 74% of people leaving report inadequate compensation. That's in total salary, benefits, bonuses, profit sharing, et cetera. Second reason lack of career development, feeling as though they're working hard but don't have any opportunity to really climb the ladder. And then third, lack of workplace flexibility. And that was 43% of the individual respondents reporting that reason. And we dug into that a little bit more. But especially as companies are reevaluating remote and hybrid working, this is going to be a topic, I think, of greater scrutiny in months to come.

Phil Wagner

Great. That's great. We've unpacked so much but also so little compared to the volume of information that exists in the book. As we kind of wind this conversation to a close, why don't you tell our listeners what they're getting when they grab a copy of your book? I mean, what is unique about the conversation that you two have facilitated here the case studies that we'll find talk to our listeners just a little bit about the work and then also where they can snag a copy.

Susanne Tedrick

Sure thing. So, for those that are coming to read the book so very clearly, it is a book about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And we do spend some time talking about, well, what does that mean? The phrase is used quite a bit, but just trying to get that initial context just in case there was anything that was murky and understanding why historically these programs have failed. But what we're hoping to give end users is inspiration. That just because we talk a lot about programs and initiatives that are not meeting the mark, we want to give kind of inspiration of the companies that are doing it well, the ones that are continuing to try, the ones that tried, and maybe they didn't get where they want to. But what all of these companies have in common are the five characteristics that we talked about and just being willing to put themselves out there to better their organization. So, hopefully, when the reader is done reading these fascinating case studies and hearing these stories, hopefully, it will inspire them to think about, well, what can I take from this and apply in my own organization so that I can help think about more innovative ways to make a more inclusive environment for everybody?

Bertina Ceccarelli

And for those who want to be inspired, you can find the book at your favorite bookseller, whether that's Amazon, Target, Barnes and Noble, or you can also find us SuzanneBertina@innovatingfordiversity.com.

Phil Wagner

Excellent. I love how you frame the conversation. There's this great quote you both give. You say great leaders don't settle for good enough when it comes to identifying and training diverse talent. I think that's key. Those that are great they push their teams to question what's possible and to innovate scalable solutions. So, yes, please go snag a copy. You'll find case studies from Fortune 100 companies, small businesses, everybody from Target, Coca-Cola, Citi, Accenture, the NHL, and beyond. Lots of great tools for your toolkit in this work. Susanne, Bertina, what a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for taking time to come on our podcast and share a little bit more about your work on innovation in this space.

Bertina Ceccarelli

Phil, thank you so much for the opportunity.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Ashley Marchand Orme
Ashley Marchand OrmeEpisode 45: September 25, 2023
Using Data to Help Craft Your DEI Narrative

Ashley Marchand Orme

Episode 45: September 25, 2023

Using Data to Help Craft Your DEI Narrative

We know that in 2021 workers returned from the pandemic to a workplace with new demands; mounting demands for corporate leaders to take concrete steps to promote racial equity, social justice, and beyond. Those calls were clear, and organizations responded, but that doesn't mean it's been an easy journey along the way. Today's guest knows that quite well. Ashley Marchand Orme—JUST Capital's director of equity initiatives—is an expert on data-backed corporate diversity insights. She has a wealth of experience leading DEI efforts in board-level oversight. Her background as a journalist and an editor lends a unique perspective to her work.

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Ashley Marchand Orme: Using Data to Help Craft Your DEI Narrative TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Ashley transitioned from journalism to the DEI space
  • What the role of the corporate sphere is in advancing broader social considerations relating to DEI work
  • How to continue working in the DEI space with continual social pushback
  • What JUST's research says about the performances of companies leading in DEI initiatives
  • Is it fair to put the burden of societal progress on the shoulders of corporations and the leaders who drive them
  • How important it is for companies to consider how they're prioritizing their own DEI issues
  • Why companies should listen to their employees and customers when designing DEI initiatives
  • What are good strategies for encouraging buy-in from employees for internal DEI programs
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Season three. How exciting. And today, we're kicking off season three with a great conversation on data insights related to diversity in the corporate space. We know that in 2021, workers returned from the pandemic to a workplace with new demands mounting demands for corporate leaders to take concrete steps to promote racial equity, social justice, and beyond. Those calls were clear, and organizations responded, but that doesn't mean that it's been an easy journey along the way. Today's guest knows that quite well. Ashley Marchand Orme, Just Capital's director of Equity Initiatives, is an expert on data-backed corporate diversity insights. She has a wealth of experience leading DEI efforts and board-level oversight, and her background as a journalist and an editor lends a unique perspective to her work as a fellow communications professional. I'm quite excited for that lens today. So welcome, Ashley, to season three of Diversity Goes to Work. We're excited to have you here. Can you kick things off by telling us a little bit more about who you are, what you do, and maybe a little bit of the story how you got there?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Awesome. Well, first of all, Phil, thank you so much for having me on the podcast. Thrilled to be with you and your listeners. As you said, I'm Ashley Marchand Orme. I serve at Just Capital as a Director of Equity initiatives on what's called the Corporate Impact Team. I lead several initiatives to help companies better understand the metrics they can use to benchmark their equity practices. I'm also working as part of the Corporate Racial Equity Alliance, along with Just Capital's Partners, FSG, and PolicyLink, to develop corporate performance standards on racial and economic equity. I got into this work, actually, in a very roundabout way, as you were alluding to. I started my career as a journalist, really wanting to amplify and elevate stories about communities of color that I just didn't think you were getting the kind of coverage and framing that I thought was deserved and appropriate. I wound up eventually taking an editorial position at the National Association of Corporate Directors, where I was asked to cover stories related to board diversity and board-level oversight of DEI. I then transitioned into a role, doing more qualitative research there at NACD and eventually education programming, all the while continuing to cover issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion and belonging for corporate directors at that full board, committee, and individual director level. And so from NACD, I joined Just Capital in 2021. But I'll just also quickly note that this work is fascinating to me. I grew up in a family in the Deep South. Both of my parents are from Louisiana. They're both African American and grew up in a segregated society. So it's been very clear to me from day one the importance of these issues and how critical it is to elevate DEI to really continue to push our society in the US more toward that equitable ideal that we have talked about for hundreds of years.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's been a great social push towards these initiatives, but your work specifically explores corporate impact. So, let's sort of set the agenda today. In your view, what is the role of the corporate sphere in advancing some of those broader social considerations related to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, justice, and beyond?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Well, I think it's important to first acknowledge the role that corporations play in our society and just the vast amount of influence corporations have over community wealth, health, politics, philanthropy, among so many other aspects of our lives. Just Capital is a nonprofit organization built on the mission to really make our economy work better for all Americans. And that's going to require both public and private sector engagement. And the private sector is massive. It's estimated to be, I've seen estimates, around four and a half times bigger than the US government. So we really need that deep engagement of the corporate community to really help advance us more toward that equitable society we want. We also just know, practically looking at our more recent history, that three years ago, in the aftermath of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many more, that there was this response among corporate America to actually address inequities. We saw so many commitments from companies saying that they were going to focus on racial equity within their own four walls but also within communities and within society more broadly. So, we know that communities have committed to doing this work. And our polling at Just Capital continues to demonstrate that the majority of Americans think that CEOs have a role to play in advancing racial equity especially. So, there's definitely been corporate commitments to focus on this. We know corporations have a massive role to play in society, so we really want to think about ways to leverage all of that influence for good.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, absolutely. I was teaching a course recently where we are looking at organizational reckoning with the DEI space, and we're looking back to examples from the 1940s, examples from, like, PepsiCo, who made notable efforts pre-civil rights movement organizations. Corporations, I think, always have the potential to outpace and set the agenda for social momentum. So I think there's certainly a role to play here. What I'm hoping we might do because I don't often get to nerd out with a fellow communications professional, Ashley, is I'm hoping that we might frame our conversation today under that lens. That work for you? Sound good? All right, so.

Ashley Marchand Orme

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

Here's what I want to do. I want to break this down into two dimensions, all right? Communicating within the corporate DEI space first and foremost, and then maybe communicating outside of that space. So, let's talk about communicating in the realm of the DEI landscape in corporate America. We know that writ-large data shows that the public expects organizations to be leaders, to be frontrunners in this conversation on DEIB. Your data finds this, too, noting how it transcends political affiliation, ideology, identity characteristics. But it doesn't always feel that way, right? Like, can we talk a little bit about the noise? And gosh, I don't know of a more salient time to be talking about anti-DEI or anti-woke noise than 2023. How do you continue doing meaningful work in this space in a space that's continuously fraught with that pushback?

Ashley Marchand Orme

It's such an important question and obviously such a timely one. There are certainly terms and issues that have been politicized. We talk about things like DEIB and broadly talk about ESG, all these acronyms that have been politicized, but we find at Just Capital time and time again through our polling. And I know anecdotally I know that there's just so much agreement across different demographic groups that includes race, age, gender, political ideologies around issues that actually ladder up to DEIB. So one quick example is that we found in our polling within the last year or two that when it comes to racial equity, the majority of Americans, I think it's 77% of Americans, have said that in order for companies to advance racial equity, they need to pay their workers a living wage. We've seen the link that Americans have in their minds between things like living wages and equity, and those issues like wages, those worker-centric issues especially, continue to rise in terms of Just their prioritization among the American public. So definitely have seen politicization of these issues. But I think when you actually break down these acronyms and break down these broad umbrella topics like diversity or equity, inclusion, and belonging to the individual issues, I think there's still broad agreement among the American public that these are important issues. I think companies are seeing this. They're going to continue to see their workers pressure them to focus on these issues because these are all things that impact our day-to-day lives, how we live our lives, how we're able to provide for ourselves and our families. So definitely think these issues are going to continue to be important. And the ways that corporate leaders address this sort of anti-DEIB environment, I think, will be very telling, and workers will know if a company is continuing to have focus on these issues or not. But really, this is an opportunity for companies to really show up, I think, for their workforce, regardless of how public they want to be about it. I think the worker experience is what's critical here to ensure is equitable.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, absolutely. It's so easy to hide behind sort of the flimsy shadow of semantics: DEI, ESG, woke. And I think beyond that, the data is clear. Your data is clear. There's a reason why this focus is still whatever we call it. There's a reason why this focus is still just super important. After all, your data at Just Capital reveals that the organizations have made a lot of great progress in this area. And I think so often we don't spend time to acknowledge the work that has been done. So, we rob the dignity of those that have benefited from this work. But gosh, there's still a lot more to do in that space. There's still a variety of equity issues that need to be addressed. Can you talk to us on some of those and what your data finds, and sort of what Just Capital is doing to address those?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Sure. And I'll start with just some context setting I think is probably obvious to most of your listeners. But, this work is necessary because the United States is a diverse nation. That's one of the benefits of living here, and it will increasingly be so. Companies have workforces that include women and people of color who, among others, have historically not had access to the opportunities they should have had access to. So these issues matter to stakeholders like workers, like customers who come into your store and engage with your employees. These issues matter to investors and to those who live in communities impacted by companies' actions. The areas we've seen the most progress over the last couple of years are those honestly where the investor community, especially the institutional investors, have been most vocal. So, we've seen improvement in areas like transparency around workforce demographics and some increase in the percentage of companies disclosing pay equity information. So, looking at whether companies are actually conducting pay gap analyses to know the difference in pay for similar work among different demographic groups within their workforce at Just, we've conducted research that also suggests that companies leading on DEI outperform their peers. So, I would just let folks know continue to watch the space at Just Capital for additional research on that. But when you look at the Broad Russell 1000, you isolate the companies that are like in the top 10% in terms of their performance on DEI issues that we track. They tend to outperform even in difficult economic environments like what we faced, especially last year. So I think that's encouraging. I'll also just note quickly: Just Capital produced a corporate racial equity tracker in 2021 and then again in 2022. And that tool itself looks at 23 different data points for the 100 largest US employers. And those data points roll up under key areas like antidiscrimination policies, pay equity, racial and ethnic diversity data, education and training programs, response to mass incarceration, and community investments. That looks at things like investment in K through twelve schools, for example. So those are some of the issues that we track and are going to continue to be analyzing. And then we also just more recently launched a tool called the Just Job Scorecard, which really helps the full Russell 1000 benchmark their performance against peer companies in seven key areas, and I won't list all of those, but that includes things like hiring, stability, and hours. Again, wages and compensation is a big one and things like benefits. So those are just some of the areas that we focus in on and are helping companies to understand their performance around when we think about things like corporate justice.

Phil Wagner

And so, to be clear, we talked about hiding behind the flimsy shadow of semantics earlier. Often, when we talk about this, companies who do this have outpace their competitors. We're not talking just about diversity; it's not just throwing diverse folks together, and yay, we outperform. You're talking about a specific, meaningful, intentional, hands-on focus to engagement in those other dimensions, too, right?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Definitely, and that's where more of the equity part of this conversation comes in. Diverse representation is important. It's great.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely.

Ashley Marchand Orme

At the end of the day, if you've got a diverse workforce and that's all you have, then that's not enough, right? We look at things like representation within leadership to understand who has a voice and not just a seat at the table but a voice in the conversation. We look at issues around, like I said, some of the community aspects of whether the company is an active member of their community and supporting education for students and is thinking about things like engaging with local small businesses as suppliers to really not just help advance equity within their four walls, but to really think about their role. And again, going back to what we were saying earlier, their influence more broadly in society.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's great. We talked earlier about the data that reveals how much the public is sort of hungry for this conversation, that the public desires to see organizations and the leaders who drive those organizations do more in this space. I'm wondering. I'm sort of taking a skeptical lens here, just to play a little bit of devil's advocate. Is that fair? I mean, is it fair? After all, these are organizations, not politicians. Is it fair to put the burden of societal progress on the shoulders of organizations, corporations, and the leaders who drive them?

Ashley Marchand Orme

I think workers and other stakeholders, more broadly in the public, their experiences are valid, right? I'm certainly never going to be one to invalidate that. So, if they have difficult experiences, those are valid, and I don't want to take away from that. I think part of why people look to corporations, specifically corporate leaders, to really show up for these issues and really lead is because there is that understanding of just how much companies and corporate leaders can actually influence our society in positive ways. So I think honestly there's some hopefulness in that, that if things don't feel right now that we need change so that the great power, influence, wealth of our corporations is actually helping to push our society in some helpful directions. I think part of what's difficult here is that the marketplace also just needs more transparency from companies to determine where progress is being made. Disclosure on human capital and social-related issues is just low across the board. Has been low continues to be low, though we are seeing some progress in certain areas. So I think that in and of itself is a major challenge to being able to even track performance and be able to make determinations of whether there's been broad progress made in certain areas. So I think that's one important thing to keep in mind. So, at Just Capital, like I said earlier, we track a lot of information about companies. And to be more specific, we typically look at the Russell 1000 and we analyze and collect about over 200 data points from the Russell 1000. And I can tell you human capital disclosures, even among the Russell 1000, are just low. So, I think that's one area where we could see improvement and then get a better understanding of where progress is being made. So, at this point, progress right now looks like seeing even Just more transparency for companies.

Phil Wagner

Does that come as sort of like a function of how we're seeing, you know, new proposed regulations surrounding ESG reporting coming from the SEC? I mean, does it have to come from a central force in order to mandate that? Or are you sort of trying to incentivize a self-report system where people are just doing this because it's more the right thing to do, and this is how we move the gauntlet forward?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Well, I think the long term, the way that we'll see sustained and continued transparency is really if we see voluntary transparency from companies, but we know that regulators step in when they think that transparency isn't coming fast enough. We did some polling a couple years ago. Maybe it was like a year and a half, two years ago, of the American public. And the American public essentially stated that they want to see more transparency from companies and that they would be willing to have the government sort of step into that role to push toward more transparency. And we know state governments, in some cases, are doing more of that. So there's a federal government level, but then there's also state-level regulations that are pushing companies more and more toward transparency. So I think, you know, we'll see how things play out with the SEC and whatever proposal they end up coming out with. But I think the broad sort of stroke is that the American public wants more transparency. Investors want more transparency to help them make decisions about companies. So, I'm expecting we'll see more transparency in the coming years. It's just a matter of who ends up being the one to push companies to actually open up and provide this data.

Phil Wagner

Yes, it comes from sort of an authentic place of this is just how we do business, hopefully. And I think that tees up another question, which is a little bit more on the how function. Like how might corporations communicate their DEI values or their DEI work, or their DEI efforts in a way that fits in overall just brand identity, corporate mission, and the public expectation? I mean, doing work in the landscape of DEIB is important, and it makes sense a lot of times align to brand. Like if you're a fitness brand, your work deals with bodies, so there's size diversity. It probably intersects with sports, so there's racial equity. We've seen that sort of blow-up Nike. If you're a bank, it makes sense for you to advocate for racial disparities and socioeconomic status. But there's a lot. I mean, there's so many different dimensions of this work you mentioned, like prison reform. We're talking there's so many different dimensions. So, do you recommend corporations go all in on all DEIB issues, or do they stick closer to those that are aligned to brand identity or the social moment? I mean, how do you recommend getting in the right place in a way that is authentic?

Ashley Marchand Orme

I mean, really, it's important for companies to pause and think about how they're prioritizing their DEIB issues, how's that been done in the past, if it's been done, and how can they do it better in the future. And really, it starts with understanding who your key stakeholders are. That's likely, and it should obviously include your workforce, your customers, those in communities that are impacted by your company's operations. So, understand who the stakeholders are and get really good at listening to them. I think that's one key area all companies could probably get better at is better understanding how to create that process of continued listening to understand what's important to their stakeholders and to their investors, too. I think prioritization is important based on what you're hearing from your stakeholders. I think some of what you were also alluding to is really important. The idea of really understanding the company's positionality within an industry, for example, there are different industries that have seen or participated in in the past variety of activities that have in some ways exacerbated inequity. So, really understanding where the company is coming from, the individual organization, but also the industry can help point toward the areas where progress is really needed where some repair work and reckoning might need to happen. And then I think the other thing that you sort of touched on that's really important for companies is just think about how to do this authentically. That has been certainly a message of the public in the past several years is to focus on authenticity. That we've seen what happens when companies do things like greenwash or equity wash. The American public knows when that happens, and I think is really looking for leaders to be authentic. And that really starts with having a senior leadership team. I would also say a board that really understands the importance of these issues and really can set that what we call the tone at the top of the organization so that everyone within the organization knows this is a priority knows that this isn't a bolt-on sort of project, that we are really going to do the work of integrating equity within our organization and tie that back to things like strategy, tie that back to the importance of culture and even how we think about hiring. The questions we ask candidates when they're coming in so they know that DEIB is important to our organization. So it's really about being authentic. Understanding how you can prioritize based on listening to your stakeholders and then really following through is obviously critical after that point. And that could be a whole additional podcast episode on the follow.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, just good communication from the board because I think we give boards just like not even a free pass. We forget that tone from the top and the important role that boards play in moving the needle forward on these initiatives.

Ashley Marchand Orme

Definitely, and the board plays a role in oversight, meaning that if they feel the senior leadership team is not making progress or is not prioritizing these issues, the board then can ask those critical questions of how are you weaving this into strategy? How are you thinking about the ways that our culture is influenced by our DEI practices or the lack thereof? So, there certainly is a critical role for the board to play in all this.

Phil Wagner

I want to go back to that point on authenticity because even when I'll make assumptions here, but even when authenticity is the anchor point, it can still be just a complicated space to communicate within. I'm wondering if your work reveals anything about the time function for a response. So, for instance, as we record this, there's a lot playing out outside of the four walls of where we're recording. I mean, there's a lot playing out in the anti-LGBTQ space. You look at Target's blowback for know Pride Month celebration. You've got state legislators limiting care on gender-affirming care and banning books and drag shows. And there's the post-Roe v. Wade realities that are complicated and absolutely have organizational implications. And so as organizations try to authentically communicate their values in this space, there's case studies for, hey, maybe just wait a little bit because if you communicate too quickly, and I worry what that might do. So I'm wondering if your work gives any suggestions for get in while the get-ins good, you know, we often point to the George Floyd moment, and if you're Jeff Harmoning, CEO of General Mills, and you're anchored in Minneapolis at that moment, you have to respond. But when it maybe is a little bit more geographically distanced, you're deciding how and when do I communicate because the world's moving so fast. What do you do? Any recommendations from your work?

Ashley Marchand Orme

I think, again, it starts with listening to your employees, listening to your workers, listening to your customers. I think companies have gotten really good about understanding their customers' buying habits. And I have a little bit of a marketing and communications background, too, where I studied things like the development of personas and how companies truly deeply try to understand their customers to help get folks in the door create habits so that customers can continue to buy product and services. I think companies have been really smart and data-driven in certain areas of the company. I think we need to translate that over to equity-related issues for whatever groups you want to name, the people of color folks who are in the LGBTQ space. I think we just have to get smarter about how we're understanding who the stakeholders are for any given company. I think we've seen at Just that, yes, the American public does want corporate leaders to stand up in these critical moments where there are big social issues in the news, that folks are looking for corporations to be leaders. In terms of timing of when and how companies respond, that certainly is up to the individual companies, and they've got to get good at understanding that. That's why they hopefully have their PR departments and their communications departments thinking about these things a little bit more critically. But I think at the end of the day, what's important to underscore is that the American public is looking for companies to better understand how they impact the lives of people on a day-to-day basis. We all show up for work. We all go in and purchase goods at stores, for example. We all see advertisements that elevate narratives in our minds about certain people groups. So there are so many different touch points that companies have to actually think about the messages that they're portraying and also how they're creating an environment for certain behaviors to flourish or not. And so I think, yes, it is difficult. I'll acknowledge that it's difficult sometimes for companies to understand where to focus in which issues specifically, to quote-unquote, stand up about. Part of one way we're trying to address this at Just Capital is we continue to do our polling. I mentioned earlier that we poll the American public. We use that polling to help inform the ways we prioritize issues for companies. We're like an eight-year-old organization at Just Capital, and over that span of time, we have partnered with organizations like the Harris Poll and have polled representative samples of Americans to the tune of 160,000 plus people at this point, and we use that polling to help drive the importance of issues. A quick example of how that's played out in recent times is over the past year, especially our polling, and some of our focus group work has shown that the American public really wants corporate leaders to pay attention to wages and the financial well-being of workers. And that issue has always been important, but especially in the last year plus, I think we've seen the inflationary environment really be a factor in this, that wages is elevated to the top. So, I think that's important for leaders to know. But we're going to continue to point to those issues that the American public raises. And the last quick thing I'll get in here too, is I mentioned in my intro that I'm part of the corporate racial equity alliance. With that alliance, we're part of this multi-year effort to really paint that picture of what equity truly looks like for companies. We know there have been questions among companies of what issues to focus in on. We're trying to paint that picture by providing a set of targets with interim milestones that companies can work toward to become more equitable in their practices, within their company, their industry, community, and then more broadly in society. So we're aiming to bring some clarity in the space, at least through that effort.

Phil Wagner

I love that you're helping to develop the narrative, right, the story that catches fire and actually moves progress forward. There's a great piece about two years ago in HBR and overselling sustainability reporting. And don't get me wrong, data-driven insights are important, but that piece notes that reporting is not a proxy to progress, right? So just because you've gotten real good at tweaking your numbers or selling the data the right way, if you can't bring that alive, if you can't turn that into practical outcomes, you're not doing anything of real value. And I think that's so important. So, I appreciate the work that you do in marrying data to pragmatic outcomes. I've got like two more questions. I really have like 74 more questions, but for the sake of time, I've got two more. Because you talk a lot about bringing your people in, right? And I think that's such a critically important function of this work. This might go in a little bit of a different direction, but can you share on any strategies for engaging or communicating with employees internally, specifically helping to loop them into these efforts? We know it takes an all-hands-on-deck approach. Can you share strategies on weaving in those who might be apathetic or skeptical so that really this becomes an all-enterprise effort and not just isolated to just folks of color, just women, just HR, just some division, but really is all hands on deck.

Ashley Marchand Orme

That's so important. I think one of the sort of missteps we've seen in the past from companies is wanting to isolate these equity issues, especially to being just about HR or just issues about women or people of color, when really, if a company gets equity right, this is something that benefits the whole company. We talk a lot about this in our standards development work with the Corporation Equity Alliance, which is that idea of what we call the curb-cut effect. It's built on this premise that the disability rights community had been advocating to get curb cuts placed in sidewalks so that folks who had mobility issues and folks who were in wheelchairs could more easily access sidewalks and move about. Those curb cuts were made in sidewalks, and that benefited everyone. I'm a mom. I use a stroller. I'm better able to access sidewalks and walk around my neighborhood and streets of my city because of the work that the disability rights community did. Because we made things more accessible and more equitable for one community. The rest of folks benefited from that as well. And I really do believe that that's true. I think because of what we were saying earlier, we're certainly seeing the politicization of a lot of equity issues. But at the end of the day, when we sort of take a step back, a society that's more equitable for all means that, for example, women, let's take women in the gender pay gap issue, for example. Women would be able to earn as much as their male peers for doing similar work. That puts money in their hands that they can invest in their families, and their homes, and their communities. And so there are certainly positive impacts from becoming more equitable from that sort of standpoint. So, I think this comes down to a couple of things. It's, again, focusing in on tone at the top, ensuring that leaders know the importance of them, signaling that these are issues that are important to us as an organization. I think companies need to help focus, especially their workforce, on the idea that a more equitable company means that the voices of folks will be heard better so we can talk about the correlation between diversity and equity and things like innovation that benefits companies and having more voices and diverse perspectives add to conversations. So I think some of this is just reminding folks of the importance and all the vast research that's been done up until this point about the links between things like diversity, equity and inclusion and outperformance and innovation, diverse perspective, and the benefits that brings. But I think it really, again, starts with tone at the top. It's important to continue to focus people on the benefits of equity. And I understand that in some cases, focusing on things like equity, like closing the pay gap, might not be as exciting to people who are already sort of in the majority and being paid well. But again, this is something that's going to be beneficial for our full society. I think it's just really important to kind of stay grounded in that.

Phil Wagner

I have one more question for you. If it's okay and if you get this right, I feel like you could have a bestseller here because I think one of the things that we're all in the DEIB space trying to figure out is how do I continue to do this work amidst the noise? And I'm wondering how you feel about the future. I mean, we've really relied so heavily on this business case for diversity that we've talked about. And I think partly we've been able to do that because we've had a socio-political climate that largely feels like it's receptive to this work. And I'm not Pollyanna. I know that there have been, like, it's not always been ripe for this, but it seems like it's gotten darker, it seems like it's gotten harder. It seems like it has shifted more aggressively now, with political and social pushback coming from so many sides. Do you worry that it's going to become less advantageous for corporations to really do this work under the business case? In the current fraught political climate we live in, does that change how you all communicate about the importance of this work?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Well, I think the business case is certainly important. I will say that I don't think that things start and stop with the business case. I think that's important. And I think, like I said earlier, research has certainly pointed toward the benefits economically of companies focusing on these issues. But I shared earlier that our demographics as a nation are changing. I think companies are going to have to continue to grapple with the fact that if they're not prioritizing equity, their customers and workers, other stakeholders, investors certainly are, and that people have more choices now than ever before in terms of who they work for, where they spend their dollars. And I think investors even can vote with their wallets, right? So I think there's more choices ever than ever before for folks in who they can engage with, and companies that really lead on these issues do have an advantage for sure. I think at the end of the day, we also have faced, like we said earlier, the politicization, a lot of these issues. I think it's not surprising that we face this. You think about the long history within the United States of how blacks, women have pushed for society to really live up to the expectations that we want this company to live up to. It's been a long road, and whenever there's been progress, there's also been pushback. So I think A, that's not surprising in some sense, and there's always going to be pushback against progress. It's just sort of just the ebb and flow of how we move society forward. But I think this is a real opportunity for companies to really step up and realize their position in society. I think certainly, over the past several years, the American public has increasingly looked to corporations to be a trusted leader. I know Edelman has done a lot of work around the importance of trust and institutions and how folks have had fairly stable trust know corporations as institutions in the United States compared to other institutions. I think we're going to continue to see that. I think the private sector is so critically important in advancing equity. And so, yeah, not surprised that there's been pushback. I think we'll continue to see pushback whenever we see progress. But if anything, it leaves me with a bit of hope that we've made a lot of progress in recent years, that there's been some really important conversations that have been elevated on a national level, and I think we're going to continue to see that. I think we're also at the point where we've gone too far forward to take too many steps back. That, I think, at least is encouraging.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I share your hope, and I share your optimism. It doesn't make the work easier, but there's a goal ahead, and we can't lose sight of that goal. My final question for you is you do such important work at Just Capital. Can you tell our listeners what's going on at Just Capital right now and how they can follow and support your work over the long term?

Ashley Marchand Orme

Absolutely. Well, I would first just encourage folks to visit our website, JustCapital.com. We're a nonprofit organization that has done a significant amount of research over our short tenure as an organization and all, again, very data-driven metrics oriented. So we're constantly putting out research that I think would be useful to corporate leaders who want to make the case for doing this work and becoming a more just organization. We've got a ton of resources at our disposal to help companies make those positive changes. I would say I'd love for folks to just keep an eye on our Just Job scorecard. We released it privately so companies could take a look and understand their performance, and we're going to more publicly release that in the coming months for the American public to take a look at to understand how companies are doing on a variety of issues related to jobs and justness in that area. And then I mentioned, finally, our standards development work. We're thrilled that we are actually working on drafting the standards this year and are looking to release them next year. So, I would just tell folks to keep an eye on that. We are excited about that work and are excited we get to be part of this big effort to paint that picture of what equity looks like and point companies toward helpful targets and interim goals to get there.

Phil Wagner

And we are likewise excited to see all of this coming out. Look forward to continuing to support you and all of the important work at Just Capital. Ashley, thanks so much for taking time to chat with us today. Such a privilege and so much to continue to unpack here. I so appreciate this conversation.

Ashley Marchand Orme

Thanks, Phil. It's been great.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Randal Pinkett
Randal PinkettEpisode 44: September 11, 2023
Data Driven DEI (but for real)

Randal Pinkett

Episode 44: September 11, 2023

Data Driven DEI (but for real)

We can't really have a conversation about DEI without acknowledging that so many DEI efforts, so many DEI programs, so many DEI initiatives—they fail. But why? Why do so many DEI programs fail despite our leaders' best intentions? Our guest today has some great insight. He says, "any effort to mitigate bias and grow inclusivity within an organization has to begin with its people. At the end of the day, organizations don't change. People change." Dr. Randal Pinkett is an entrepreneur, innovator, and DEI expert. He's the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of BCT Partners, a global research, training, and data analytics firm whose mission is to provide insights about diverse people that will lead to equity. Dr. Pinkett was also the first—and only—African American to win the top honor on the hit reality TV show "The Apprentice."

Podcast (audio)

Randal Pinkett: Data Driven DEI (but for real) TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What is meant by data-driven DEI, and its significance in DEI efforts
  • What the five criteria are for data-driven DEI
  • How change has to begin with people and what it means against a data-driven approach
  • What are some business benefits of data-driven DEI
  • How to navigate DEI programs in the face of social backlash
  • What are some personal and professional benefits of engaging in DEI work
  • How to self-evaluate before embarking on a DEI journey
  • How to learn from the actions of others when it comes to facing DEI social backlash
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. We can't really have a conversation about DEI without acknowledging that so many DEI efforts, so many DEI programs, so many DEI initiatives they fail. But why do so many DEI programs fail despite our leaders' best intentions? Well, our guest today has some great insight. He says any effort to mitigate bias and grow inclusivity within an organization has to begin with its people. At the end of the day, organizations don't change. People change. Dr. Randal Pinkett is an entrepreneur, innovator, and DEI expert. He's the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of BCT Partners, a global research, training, and data analytics firm whose mission is to provide insights about diverse people that lead to equity. Dr. Pinkett has been a successful entrepreneur for over 20 years. He was the founder of four previously successful companies and is currently the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of his fifth venture, BCT Partners. Dr. Pinkett was also the first and only African American to win the top honor on the hit reality television show season four of The Apprentice, which, if you've watched that season, you know there's some DEI lessons baked into that season as well. I want to go ahead and note that if you're a William & Mary student, you can find all of Dr. Pinkett's work in Swem libraries and online, including an audiobook format. You've likely been recommended some blackfaces in high places. Black faces in white places are excellent resources. As is his newest work, Data Driven DEI. The tools and metrics you need to measure, analyze, and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Pinkett, thank you so much for joining us today. Truly an honor to welcome you on our podcast.

Randal Pinkett

Thank you for having me on the podcast, Phil. I'm excited to be here, and I'm looking forward to the conversation.

Phil Wagner

All right, so let's talk about Data Driven DEI. We've talked a lot about data-driven efforts on this podcast, but there's a lot of confusion. What does that even mean? What data? What do I measure? Talk to us a little bit about that work and the significance of data in DEI efforts.

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. There's the old adage: If it cannot be measured, it cannot be managed. And I say old adage, it's been floating around for quite some time now, but the reason why it's been floating around is because there's some truth to it. Interestingly, in my experience, and you mentioned I've been in business now for more than three decades, and I've been in DEI for more than two-three decades. When I'm talking with leaders, they say we have to measure and set a goal for marketing. We have to measure and set a goal for sales. We have to measure and set a goal for fundraising. We have to measure and set a goal for student enrollment. I mean, the list just goes on and on and on. And then we get to DEI. They say, what do you need? What do you mean you want to set a goal? Oh, it's a quota. It's not rigorous enough. Oh, it's too loosey-goosey. Oh, it's too soft. And I'm like, Why are we even having this conversation? Why is DEI any different? Why should it be any different? And I will argue it is not any different than any of the other disciplines that I mentioned a moment ago. And part of that could be the maturity of DEI coming into its own and being recognized. But part of it is, quite frankly, people making excuses. This is what it boils down to is an unwillingness or a lack of commitment and a lack of wanting to be held accountable. Let's keep it real to meeting diversity, equity, and inclusion goals. And I think it is arguably more the latter than it is the former. When we talk about data-driven DEI, what we're talking about is meeting essentially five criteria. Let me break those down for you. The first is making sure that you use data in order to set objectives with measurable goals. Second is making sure that you have data to perform an assessment that establishes a profile and a baseline. Third is leveraging promising and proven practices based on the experience of expert practitioners and those with lived experiences. Next is using data to gauge progress, evaluate results, demonstrate impact, and engender accountability. When you meet those criteria, you have a data-driven approach to DEI.

Phil Wagner

So you say in this work that any effort to mitigate bias and grow inclusivity has to begin with people. And I teach in the soft space, and I think the people part of the enterprise and then the technical data part of the enterprise those are often pitted against each other. What do you mean when you say this has to begin with people, and how does that relate to this data-driven approach?

Randal Pinkett

That was a great question, Phil, and you cited one of my favorite excerpts from the book, which is that organizations do not change. People change. Which means any effort for more diverse relationships, more inclusive behaviors, more equitable practices has to begin with people, which means it must begin within you, within me, within who's listening to us right now. Which means there has to be some personal transformation. If there is no personal transformation, then there is no transformation, be it organizational or otherwise. So a data-driven approach, interestingly, begins with how do you use data to know where you are in your journey, to measure your preferences or your biases, your competencies, or what you do well. How do you set measurable goals? How do you gauge progress against your strategies, and how do you evaluate your results, your impact, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera? If we're not data-driven, nothing is data-driven.

Phil Wagner

So when it comes to DEI, you present sort of the classic business case and also a personal case. And I think a lot of the conversation we've had thus far takes us to this place where we start to dismantle each of those a little bit more. Can you tell us a little bit more about some of the specific business benefits?

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. And there has been a ton of research on this topic and very convincing, dare I say, evidence of the business case. The value of diversity, equity, and inclusion for businesses, organizations, universities, nonprofits, et cetera. You win the competition for talent. That is, you out-recruit and out-retain the competition. You strengthen your customer orientation. Whoever your customer is, you better understand them, you better service them, you better support them. Studies have shown you increase employee trust, retention, engagement, satisfaction, and performance. You improve decision-making and foster innovation. Research shows that diverse teams take longer to make decisions, but they make better decisions. Some really great recent work on diverse juries, reaching better verdicts in the courtroom, enhancing your organization's image, brand, and reputation. Great work out of the UK that has shown that in the minds and the eyes of consumers, your social practices are very closely aligned with your brand and your image and your reputation. And then lastly, great work by McKinsey that's done several studies that has found that when you get this right, it goes directly to the bottom line, that there are financial returns that outperform the competition when you are more embracing of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So, the evidence, again, has been clear and compelling of the value of the business case for DEI.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, we often cite that in our curricular frameworks for this here as well. I'm wondering, as a DEI professional, how do you navigate the social tides of right here and right now? We know there is a business case for teams outcomes, for profit outcomes, for brand identity outcomes. There's also a lot of pushback in this space right now. Looking at recent case studies, you've got your Targets and your Bud Lights who took a stand on LGBTQ rights and kind of had a loud stakeholder group, though minority come in and rattle. I took my kids to see the new The Little Mermaid, which is fantastic, a wonderful retelling, but face backlash simply because Disney chose to cast a black actress. Do you see the business case changing as these loud, though minority stakeholder groups kind of rattle, or do you think this is just an outlier group and that there still will consistently be a business case for this? I asked that a little bit tongue in cheek. Of course, we know that case will always be there, but how do we navigate this kind of rocky moment?

Randal Pinkett

Another great question, Phil, and I agree. I don't see the business case changing. So, I echo your closing comments. But we are in an era of what some describe, and I've grown fond of this word of reversity, which is organized resistance to diversity, equity, and inclusion. And it is deeply troubling. I maintain faith, dare I say hope, that the underlying principles of DEI we all still share. Now, maybe I sound idealistic, but I hope I'm not. That is my talk about dignity and, respect, and fairness. I dare you to have resistance to that. I dare you. But somehow, the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion has been co-opted. It's been turned on its head, ironically, to mean divisiveness, that we're rewriting history, that we are closing off ideas that open us up to different ways of thinking. But that's exactly the opposite of what diversity, equity, and inclusion represents. So whether it means we have to change the language, not the business case, change the articulation of the principles, not the business case, I want to believe, I have to believe, I fundamentally believe there's something deeper that we all can rally around that is in the spirit of dignity, fairness, and respect. Because if not, Phil, we are really in trouble.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I'm with you, and I share your conviction, and I share your hope and optimism. And I think that's why building tools for our toolkits right here and right now, to do this work well, because, again, you look at the DEI industrial complex, we have dropped the ball along the way, we have been messy along the way. This is a reminder to get our act together. And that's what I love about your work: is very rigorous methodology to tell us exactly how to do that. And I think your work answers that question because you also break down the personal and professional benefits at an individual level for DEI. And I think that can carry and sustain this greater change-making we're talking about. Can you unpack that for us a little bit more some of the personal and professional benefits we get by engaging in this space?

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. And what's interesting is you could go to almost any organization's website, and you could likely, notwithstanding the polarization of DEI, but you could likely find a statement of commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Ask someone what is the case for why they should care about diversity, equity, and inclusion. And they would be less likely to have an immediate answer to that question. In fact, I asked a room full of DEI professionals at a Fortune 500 corporation, what do you see as the personal case? And the very first response I got was it helps my organization. That's not what I asked. I asked you to be selfish. What's in it for you? The most popular radio station on the planet is WIFM. What's in it for me? So I ask, what's in it for you? Well, here's what the research tells us. The research tells us that you can expect enhanced personal growth. You can expect this one blows me away. Improved health and wellness. That is, a study found that there is lower risk of mortality, less cognitive decline, and less physical decline when you have more diverse relationships, when you have more inclusive behaviors, and when you embrace more equitable practices. It enhances your diversity of thought. It enhances your learning and performance at school and at work. It expands your network of relationships. It increases your range of opportunities. And last but not least, for those of you who are purely utilitarian, it leads to more positive evaluations on your job, earlier performances, higher compensation when you embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, this has worked for all of us, and there's benefits for all of us. I have reaped those benefits. I have seen students reap those benefits. I've then seen our corporate partners reap those benefits. So I'm very much picking up what you're putting down. So, let's talk a little bit about how to get there because you have to put in the work to actually achieve those benefits. You got to sow the seed to reap the results. In data-driven DEI, you outline a very detailed five-step approach to creating measurable and impactful DEI initiatives. That first step it involves an assessment. You got to step back and figure out what's really going on with my current reality. Talk to us about that assessment and why it's so critical in this process.

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. So, it is a five-step process. It actually has a step zero, which is a little off for those purists with numbers. But step zero is all off alliteration of the letter I. So, the first step is DEI incentives. Clarifying why this matters to you, which gets back to what we just discussed, the business case and the personal case. Step one is DEI inventory, conducting an assessment. And therein, for people, you want to assess your preferences and your competencies. Your preferences are the things you're naturally inclined to think or do. Your competencies are the things that you're naturally able to do. It's important to know your preferences because it also gives you insight to your blind spots. If I have a preference for being around men, I might have a blind spot for evaluating women. My competences is a value judgment. What do you do well, and what do you not do well? Am I good at inclusive leadership? Am I good at navigating and bridging difference? If not, I need to know that. So, if I don't know where I am, I can never know where I'm going. So step one is DEI inventory, and for an organization, it's the four P's. You want to assess your people, your practices, your policies, and your performance. Benchmark your performance. If you can cover those four bases: people, policy, practices, and performance, then you've conducted a comprehensive DEI inventory. That's step one.

Phil Wagner

All right, so you got step one. I know where I'm at. I've got step zero locked in place. I know my why. I know my North Star. I know what's guiding me. The next step is programming that into my GPS. Right. I need to determine where it is that I want to go how I'll know if I've actually arrived. I don't know that we ever fully arrive there. It's always a journey. Can you give us some examples of those effective objectives and goals so we're not just shooting into the wind, but we're very strategic and pointed where we want to go?

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. And you mentioned earlier how sometimes, not in your words but mine kind of qualitative and quantitative can be at odds with each other. I guess they can bump heads. Well, the beauty of the framework I've offered in the book is it's based on an amalgam of quantitative and qualitative. It's the OGSM model, which stands for objectives, goals, strategies, and measures. I'll start with the OG. I know that sounds colloquial, starting with the OG. But the OG is objectives and goals. Objectives is a qualitative statement of what you want to accomplish, plain and simple language. I want to be a more inclusive leader. I want to strengthen my organization's culture and climate, to be more embracing of members of the LGBTQIA community. That's qualitative. Quantitative is the goal. How are you going to know you've accomplished the objective? Which means if it is more inclusive behaviors, I need an assessment that assesses my inclusive behaviors. It might produce an index on a scale of six. You're at a four. Okay, well, then, my goal is to go from a four to a five in twelve months. I'll readminister that assessment. If it's an organization and its culture and climate, I could produce an inclusive culture composite score out of 100. We score at an 82. So, over the next six months, I want to move that needle from an 82 to a 92. And there is my objective qualitative, and my goal quantitative.

Phil Wagner

I'm taking notes here because I'm like, I got to teach from this tonight. This is great. This is fantastic. And I'm reminded we've had another conversation recently on the podcast where we talk about the importance of measurement but also ensuring that measurement doesn't become a naive proxy for progress. And what I love about your framework is that you give us a great way to take what we measure, to take that data and actually do something with it. So once you've got your objectives and your goals locked in place, tell us the next step.

Randal Pinkett

So, the next step is one of my favorites. It's DEI insights. Again, alliteration on the letter I. DEI insights says before you decide what you're going to do, pause for the cause and ask the question, what worked for somebody else? Or what worked for another organization? And in fact, if you go to the data-driven DEI website at datadrivendei.com, I could not believe it was still available when I got it. But datadrivendei.com, you'll find best practices, proven practices, promising practices, and free tools and templates and, case studies, and other resources to scaffold your journey. But the point here is, do not reinvent the wheel. There's been lots of research about how employee resource groups work about how people are using virtual reality. There's a series called Through My Eyes, how people are using mobile apps like The Inclusion Habit, how people are using machine learning, like precision analytics that have been proven to make a difference for moving behavior, moving culture, moving climate, improving skills and abilities, et cetera. So DEI insight says, pause for the cause. Look to see what's worked for somebody else, some other organization, some other person that it might inform doesn't define what you do, but it informs what you do.

Phil Wagner

And going back to our earlier conversation here, do you have concerns that as we look to organizations who have been maybe front runners and upholding the banner of DEI inclusive policies, forward-facing public communication on their commitments, the Targets of the world that now maybe younger, less mature, less established companies look and say, ha. I can see now what doesn't work what didn't work. And I'm going to not be so intellectually brave. Do you have any concerns about, again, the loudness of the social moment?

Randal Pinkett

Well, you make a great point. Looking to what works also prompts you to look to what doesn't work. And it's a constantly evolving learning curve for all of us in this space, the DEI industrial complex. We are constantly evolving and strengthening our knowledge base around what does and doesn't work. And one size doesn't fit all. What may have worked or not worked for Target doesn't define what you do, but you can learn from their experience. Why, we'll get back to this when we get to step five. I'm such a big fan of storytelling, so when we tell stories, it gives us the ability to not just inspire but also to inform.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's good. So, do you want to talk about stories? I think my next question is how can people and organizations determine if their DEI initiatives have been effective. There's some storytelling baked in there, but I'll allow you to kind of lead. Sorry, I got us a little bit off track from our five-step model. Our nice, neat conversation here.

Randal Pinkett

No, it's cool. No, I have an entire section on DEI data storytelling. How do you tell an effective, inspiring, informative story that uses data? But when I say that to people, they're like, oh, you're talking about charts and tables. Well, maybe. But quite frankly, if I am to tell you my story of leaving America to go to England and experiencing culture clash, and my mom told me when I told her I don't like the food, she said, well, son, I could teach you how to cook soul food, but I got a better idea. What's that, mom? Ask someone to teach you a dish from their country when you go back. And I learned how to cook Chinese food from somebody from China and Caribbean food from somebody from Jamaica. And so now I have this eclectic culinary repertoire that not only allowed me to put weight back on I had lost but also gave me insight to different cultures that now, as an entrepreneur, when I do business globally, I have a little bit insight of who's sitting across the table from me. Now, guess what? There was a whole lot of data in there. No numbers, no charts, qualitative data. I engaged with people. I had a conversation with my mother. I explored. I gave you three different countries that I explored. So, all of that is a part of what is storytelling. And the beauty, again, is that it inspires, but it also informs. And when we tell our stories, two beautiful things happen. We're able to share our lived experience, but we also find our voice. And for those of us who may not be accustomed to this DEI journey, I'm an old-school executive. I can talk about manufacturing and, marketing and sales, but I don't talk about DEI. Well, guess what? Tell your story. You've just stepped into the DEI space.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love that. We talk a lot about storytelling on this podcast. There's a functional role of storytelling even in the broader theoretical constructs that ground DEI work. So, absolutely. Speaking to very important spaces and places in your work, you tell us, maybe I should say you warn us that there's no stopping point here, right? That this is a constantly evolving, never-ending, iterative, continuous cycle. Unpack that cycle for us and maybe help disarm that because that might seem like, okay, then I'm not even going to get into this work because I'm goal-oriented. I want to get somewhere, and you're telling me I can't get anywhere. We do get someplace, but there's a value to staying in that cycle, that process of continuous improvement. Can you unpack that a little bit more for us?

Randal Pinkett

Absolutely. So, I'll round out the five steps in answering the question. Step four, finally, is DEI initiatives. What are you going to do? But notice that that's step four. What are you going to do? And here we're talking about the S and the M of OG SM. Again, OG objectives and goals. SM strategies and measures. Strategies are what specific steps will you take? I'm going to read a book. I'll listen to a podcast. Maybe the Diversity Goes to Work podcast. I might take a course, maybe a course that's available in the campus catalog. I might go to the library. Oh, I'm just offering up some wonderful ideas here. Or I might read an article online or watch a movie or travel someplace, or have a courageous conversation over lunch, but that is a strategy. A measure is very simple and let me be distinctive between outputs and outcomes. An outcome is a final result. We mentioned earlier, I want to have more inclusive behaviors. I want to strengthen my culture and climate. That's an outcome. An output is a measure of activity. Well, how many classes did you take? How many books did you read? How many videos did you watch? How many times did you go to the library? Those are not final results, folks. Going to the library, reading the book, watching the video is not a final result. That's an output. It's a measure of activity. And the S and the M measure your activity, which means you're likely making progress toward the goal. Last thing I'll say to your question is, yeah, it's a cycle. Because step five is DEI impact, gauge progress, measure results, evaluate course correct, the cycle continues. But the good news is, once you've been through the cycle, you've learned, you've grown, you're a better person, you're more inclusive. But there's also still areas for improvement. Just like life is a journey, DEI is a data-driven journey, not a destination.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love it. I love it. Again, big fan of your work, as are our students. I think Blackfaces in High Places is just an excellent read. I love data-driven DEI, and let's talk about supporting this work. So, if I'm a listener, I'm going to go out and grab a copy of this book. I already know it. I feel it. I can sense the energy in this conversation. I want to go read your work. What's it going to do for me? Does it help me enhance my own leadership? Is it personally directed? Does it help me figure out how to build a better organization? What's it going to help me do?

Randal Pinkett

The benefits are both personal and professional, and I'll start with the personal. It's going to make you a better friend, a better significant other, more empathic, better of understanding people, leading people, working alongside people, supporting others, civic engagement. It's going to bring all those personal benefits. But then, professionally, it's going to help you perform better in school, at work, on your job, to be able to navigate and lead people who are different than you. I argue that being an inclusive leader is the signature trait of leadership in the 21st century. In our global world, in our diverse world, in our polarized world. I would argue that it's not enough to get outside of your comfort zone to engage with people different than you. What we need today is people who can bridge across difference, who can bring Democrats and Republicans together, who can bring immigrants, the native-born, together, who can bring black and white and brown and yellow and the list goes on together, who can bring heterosexual LGBTQIA together. Like we need to be bridges for a society that right now is becoming frayed at the fabric that once constituted that society, so it'll bring all of those things to you, and more beautifully, it'll bring all of that to our society as well.

Phil Wagner

I love it. Final question for you is tell our listeners how they can support you. Of course, go grab copies of your work, but where can they follow you? How can they continue to support your thought leadership and the important work that you're doing in this space?

Randal Pinkett

Thank you, Phil. So I can be found on all social media platforms at Randal Pinkett, Randall with one L. That's Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn. You can learn more about me at randalpinkett.com. Again, Randal, with one L and you can go to the Data-Driven DEI website, where, again, there's free tools, templates, resources, best practices, and case studies on data-driven approaches to diversity, equity, and inclusion at datadrivendei.com.

Phil Wagner

There you have it. Data Driven DEI out now. Please go grab a copy. Support the wonderful work of Dr. Randal Pinkett. Thank you so much, Dr. Pinkett, for joining us today. Again, incredible conversation. Big fan of the work you do, and we look forward to continuing to share that work with our students, our listeners, and everyone we come into contact with.

Randal Pinkett

Thank you, Phil. Appreciate you, appreciate your voice.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Sarah Federman
Sarah FedermanEpisode 43: August 28, 2023
Transformative Negotiation for Social Change

Sarah Federman

Episode 43: August 28, 2023

Transformative Negotiation for Social Change

Today we welcome back Dr. Sarah Federman. Dr. Federman is an author, educator, and conflict resolution practitioner. She's currently a faculty member at the Kroc School of Peace Studies at the University of San Diego. Dr. Federman studies and explores the concept of reckoning and produces some of the most interesting and engaging research. She joins host Phil Wagner to talk about her latest book "Transformative Negotiation: Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures," and so much more.

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Sarah Federman: Transformative Negotiation for Social Change TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • Who is the target audience of Sarah's new book
  • Why Sarah decided to write "Transformative Negotiation"
  • What exactly defines a transformative negotiation
  • The importance of negotiating for those who are not at the table
  • What the power is of learning how to ask for oneself
  • The best way to negotiate in an environment of bias
  • How best to negotiate under adverse circumstances
  • Why to implement a win-win-win framework
Transcript

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun.

Phil Wagner

Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today's guest is no stranger, not to the William & Mary community, not to our podcast. I very much remember where I was and what I was doing the first time I came into contact with Sarah Federman's work. I was on a drive to DC, doing what I always do, listening to a really good podcast to pass the time as I trekked north on I-95. A terrible drive that was broken up by a great podcast that forever changed how I thought about corporate accountability. Sarah's interview on Harvard's ideas cast came on I was immediately captivated. Sarah's become a friend over the past year. She's been to our campus. She's spoken to our students in multiple classes. She's been a guest on this podcast. So Sarah, it really is a true privilege to have a conversation with you anytime, and I'm glad we could invite you back to talk about your new book. So, welcome back to the podcast, my friend.

Sarah Federman

Thank you so much. I love talking with you, and I love connecting with the William & Mary community. For some reason, there's a fit there and so.

Phil Wagner

There's a connection.

Sarah Federman

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

So before we talk about your book, we're recording this in the summertime, and I want to know, what are you doing these days when you're not teaching when you're not researching, when you're not changing the world with impactful scholarship, what are you up to?

Sarah Federman

Well, one of the best things about finding myself in San Diego is that you can swim in the ocean. And there's something really interesting about walking it primordial. You walk into the sea, and there's sea lions, like, all around you. And just feeling that connection with nature and movement and getting kind of quiet away from the world has been such a gift in this moment. And maybe people on here who love swimming love that kind of silent part about it, but that's kind of been my joy.

Phil Wagner

Good. Go swim in the ocean. Yeah, right. All right, so let's get down to business because we have a lot to talk about because this book is juicy, and it's good, and it's different, and it's different in so many ways. It's different from your past work, which I want to talk about too. It's also different from a lot of the other negotiation work out there. So we're here today if you're listening to talk about Sarah's latest book. It's called Transformative Negotiation Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Future. So, Sarah, talk to us about this new book. It's been quite the labor of love coming for a long time. In your own words, what's this book about? And who's this book for?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, so maybe many people who are listening have read negotiation books, have taken classes, listened to podcasts. I mean, you're negotiators. You're in a negotiating life. Of course, we all are. But business people are especially attuned to that. And I had negotiated for years in the corporate career, so enjoyed it, did it all over the world, and then found myself a professor in Baltimore teaching adult master's students and found that there was a real mismatch between their world and their challenges. And what the books kind of the examples the books had to offer. Some of the principles worked, definitely, but the context didn't work. So this is a book. It is for anybody who is negotiating always. I mean, it's still for all people to get little snippets from, but it's drawing on the experiences of those who are using negotiation to reach stability. Many people come to negotiation are already pretty good. Like, they kind of have the basics. Maybe middle class, you're stable, you're going to the next level, or there's one part of your life that doesn't work at all, but one part does. I really learned from people who really, from precarity, found stability and created this book using their stories. Over 100 master's students contributed their time and, critique and stories and insights to making this. So that was sort of the origin.

Phil Wagner

So, let's talk a little bit about the story behind this book. Like you mentioned, it's filled with so many narratives from all over the place, which I think is really helpful because this is all things to all people. It's really widely applicable. But I'm wondering what drove you to pen this as your next work. Because if you're listening and you haven't yet read Sarah's last book, Last Train to Auschwitz, so good. Number one, if you're a William & Mary student, I have extra copies in my office. So swing by, I'll lend you a copy for sure. But in that, Sarah, you chronicle the French national railway system and their journey towards accountability. This is a little bit different, though. I think I can track the connection. Right. So, let me break this down. This is me piecing it together. And you kind of allude to this in the book, too. So post World War II, negotiation was, like, all that, right? Then we quickly got distracted, like, by world events and the collective global distractions, like genocide and rising tech and 9/11. And so you say the quote, I think, is negotiation and peacebuilding grew apart. And so that's I've connected the two of, like, oh, I see. But I don't know. Maybe that's just Phil Wagner putting it all together. Why don't you tell us a little bit more about the story behind this work? Why this book? And why now, when the world seems to be spinning faster and more unwieldy than ever before?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, well, I think, as with the Trains book, I didn't even feel like I chose that project that sort of came to me. And in the book, I talk about sort of how that happened. And this book, in a similar way, in its own way, sort of came to me. But they both have in common that it's at the intersection of business and peacebuilding. Fields which usually live apart, both of them. Right. Peacebuilding thinks business, whatever they think or don't think about it, and business is like, peacebuilding is cute, but we've got work to do, or whatever they think. Right. So, my kind of life has been at that intersection. But what happened was because I had business experience, my job at the University of Baltimore had me teaching negotiation and teaching. So I'm teaching a night class. I'm teaching to students who work all day. Some of them are single parents. They're caregiving. Many of them are from Baltimore. And the misfit between the books and their world was actually embarrassing. And not just the book. My experience, I couldn't help them with what the context in which they were negotiating. You know, in corporate context and business negotiation, there's a lot of flexibility. These are not hierarchical organizations in the same unless it's Walmart. Right. And they're very hierarchical, and maybe Exxon. Right. There are corporations like, you know, a student would laugh and be like, oh, you want me to ask the military just for a raise because I did a good job? These different organizations there were different worlds that these students were in. So war, hierarchical organizations, really high stakes, like getting their kids back from the court, or how as a six foot four black man that's 260 pounds, how not to intimidate white people, important questions that have real impact on their lives. So I had them coach each other, and then we brought in experts who had those answers, and then that the book grew out of that.

Phil Wagner

So, my background is in communications. I have read dozens, if not multiple dozens, of negotiation books. They're good. Some of them are great. This one is different because of the specific focus. So, I mean, even anchored in the title, you can tell that this is going to take us in a different direction. You talk about social mobility. You talk about negotiating for social transformation. I think that disrupts people's thinking that negotiation is just something I whip out in my annual performance review when I need a salary bump. Talk to us about that social mobility piece, that social transformation piece, and how that connects to this broader theme of negotiation.

Sarah Federman

Yeah. I really saw what it did for people who were given these skills for the first time in a way that was relatable to them, being coached by people that had been through similar experiences huge changes. I mean, a $40,000 raise for someone in Baltimore can buy you another apartment. I mean, it's like it transforms your life. And it wasn't just raises. It was relationships and so on. And so what I found is that they were already savvy negotiators, but because of historical marginalization, they either didn't realize it and they were good at code-switching, but just like with a little coaching, they were able to move into different worlds in additional, but they had special skills. The social transformation part was one of my concerns with learning negotiation over the years has been there's not an ethical protection in negotiation training. Phil, you and I can negotiate right now and feel really high-five each other, and both feel like we have a win-win, but we have just harmed, I don't know, a community, a lake, whatever that wasn't at the table. And there's no concern in negotiation theory for those not at the negotiation table. Maybe pragmatically, you don't want to piss people off because it might undo the deal. But I really place centrally that actually negotiations need to think about who's not at the table and when you get into power, whether you're on the rise from the margins or were born in positions in families that had a lot of power, that you want to be cognizant of that in your negotiation.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I want to get to some of that marginalization a little bit later and also to the win-win framework too. You have a nice little addendum to that as well. But before we do, I'm hoping we might sort of unpack some of the model. If you were of the book, I mean, you talk about the importance of a few key elements in negotiation, some that really pop out to me: a vision, the importance of a clear ask, and the importance of giving. But you really contextualize that well. So, let's unpack this. I think vision is the easiest place to start. I love that I even wrote this quote down in my notes. You say negotiation skills get you somewhere, but you get to decide where. Talk to us about the importance of a vision because I think that can seem a little like head in the clouds, like Instagram influencer, like your vision board party. You talk about vision boards in the book, right? But talk to us about the importance of a clear vision as we approach the negotiation table.

Sarah Federman

Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that I realized from the students when they would say things they want, I was like, well, why would you want that? That seems really interesting. And so we really did more digging at why. And what I learned is that a lot of times, trauma we all know from studies that historical marginalization does affect what it is that you want. And you don't know that's what's happening. You don't know that you think that you want that thing because your community has been marginalized. You don't know. And I love the Carl Jung line that the biggest impact on a child is the unlived life of his or her parents. So we're coming in. So I have students write about, like, well, what did your parents want to do when they grew up? And are you feeling that you need to do that? And all the students are like, oh, my God, mom always wanted to be a lawyer. So, I think it's important to take time to figure out where those wants come from. I worked in advertising for a decade. I know how much money goes into inserting wants into our brain.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you've been talking about that. So one of the examples I hope I remember this right, Sarah, but you talk about there's an example where you hash through the continual whys, like, I want a big fancy wedding, and it gets to some deeper issues that would never bubble to surface right away but are quite telling. Let's talk about that second piece, which is the power of asking or the importance of asking? You tell so many stories in this book. You know, I'm a big DC fan. We have talked about DC. I teach in DC. You tell a story that's centered in DC. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that story with Fernandez Kennedy Center and just the power of a simple ask and just going there?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, I was a friend of mine, and I were going to the Kennedy Center, where they have free concerts for those who are not in a position to pay for the big ticket items. And so I think it's like the Millennium Theater or something. And I was in grad school, so we went together, and he starts looking around. He's like, what are all those people in Sequins doing? And fancy outfits? Like, I want to be where they are. I mean, I was dressed in, like, turtleneck. I don't know. I was like, I even picture what I was wearing. Like, nothing nice. So it goes over. She just goes over, and he says, what is this? And like, oh, this is a USO event to honor fallen military, or I forget exactly what it was. He's like, oh, how much is it to go? It's like, $250. He's like, oh, but do you have anything cheaper? She goes, oh, come back in a couple of hours, in an hour, and let's see if there's some things that didn't fill up. So we come back, and I was already so embarrassed when he was just, like, asking this. And I was like, look at us. We should not be with these people. We're not in the military. We've done nothing. We're not dressed. And so he comes back 25 minutes later, and just like, funniest thing, we have this box seat that's open, and we can't have it empty when the television cameras move around. So, could you guys fill that? So we end up sitting next to the star between the star of the Jersey Boys, Miss America, right? And we're next to the stage, and we start swing dancing during the Alabama and the different bands that are going. And then this woman runs over, and I thought she was going to totally kick us out, and she said, you guys are stealing the show because of your dancing. It was like a crazy evening all because I felt this absolute shame that I don't belong here. I can't ask to go into this event. And he didn't have that problem, and if it weren't for him, we wouldn't have had this life experience for, like, I think we ended up paying, like, $40.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, $30 is what the book says. Nothing, right?

Sarah Federman

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

So. I mean, I'm like you, Sarah. I am afraid to ask, which is kind of weird to admit as a professional, but I think I don't want to be what we commonly call like, an ass coal, right? Like I don't want to drain the pool of all the resources for my own personal benefit. Do you have any steps or recommendations for people to implement so that they get into that space of asking? And, of course, being self-aware that you are, again, sucking up all the resources, but really just doing it afraid and going ahead and making the ask.

Sarah Federman

Yeah. So I play this game that I invite people to play in the book, too. And if you can do it with, like, a partner or a friend, all the better. Is like, challenge yourself to make three crazy requests. And these are requests that are, like, low stakes, and you're not exerting your power over someone. Like, so you'll ask an employee to stay the weekend or something, and there's no coercion there, right? They're free to say no, but you just ask for the weirdest thing, and oh, my God, I can't believe I asked my students to do it, to try to get a no, to get used to a no. So they didn't freak out at a no, but they were getting all these things they were asking for, you know, free things at Starbucks, free upgrades at Apple, getting know mom to dye their hair like they got all these things, and so they're like, oh, my God, I can actually have I didn't actually know that I could have these things. And just practicing really low-stakes asking is the way to do it. Reading my book or negotiation books on how to ask, do your salary, and all of that. But you got to loosen up with the asking and not freak out with the no's.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I appreciate that. And then I also appreciate in the book how you go deeper, too, because it's not just about asking for freebies at Starbucks or you say, if you can't ask, you can't negotiate. If you can't negotiate, you can't escape from social marginalization, right? Or help others. So here's the bind. I think so many people from historically marginalized backgrounds or underresourced communities. They've really sort of been conditioned to not ask and might have learned it from parents or family units or other messaging. A violent or neglectful upbringing, you know, can also impact how comfortable people are. So, what do you recommend to those from historically underrepresented or marginalized groups? Is it the same? Just make the ask anyway: How do we account for that marginalization piece?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, that's such a good point. And I talk about in the book. There's a study that asked white women and black women how happy they are with their lives if they feel they've succeeded. And while they were all saying yes, they discovered that the black women had accepted far less for that bar, that that bar was so much lower. Right. Like expecting less. So one of the ways to do it is to make a map of who you feel you can make requests of in your life and what you can make requests for and then testing it safely. I also think if you grow up in communities where there's a lot of violence, or you've grown up with trauma or neglect, you've learned to be quiet for your own safety. And people who grew up in these communities also develop very good senses of who they can make requests of and who they can't. Right. So, not to betray the wisdom that they've gained, but in context where they think, I think I'm overreacting here to actually give it a try. And that's why it's fun to pair up with a friend and kind of see what you can do. But yeah, to understand, kind of like, were you neglected? And so you realize that speaking up, you thought speaking up wasn't worth it, and so you gave up in all areas, or you spoke up and you got hit. And so you figure you can't ask, or your parents couldn't make requests, so then they teach you that you can't make requests.

Phil Wagner

I know it's a lot to chew on, right? To think about what this looks like. You don't just talk about asking. You also talk about giving, which I don't know if you see as the antithesis or sort of the balance point here, but you talk about giving. Can you unpack what you mean? Are you talking about giving in, like, the traditional, like, am I accommodating versus compromising versus integrating? Or is this about giving something else?

Sarah Federman

Yeah. So I think you'll under your asshole. If you just keep asking in your life and don't give, eventually, people see you as a taker. Right. And so studies show that, and Adam Grant talks about this in his book Give and Take, that those people who give long-term it at work while they may lose short-term because they're not as ambitious and their name isn't getting on everything long term. They actually do better. So you want to be giving, and you want to give to people what they actually need, not just what you're good at giving. So I talk in the book about that, thinking of seeing yourself as a giver. And kind of the addition for those from historically marginalized groups is that they might find themselves doing a lot of caregiving. And that's not the kind of giving that Adam Grant says earns you more money long term. Like, to be very clear, there's like, giving and people who do a lot of unpaid labor that, know, maybe respected in our culture as much or definitely not financially rated or caretaking profession. And I wanted to just be clear that that giving might be giving to yourself. Caregivers may need to stop and give to themselves and care for themselves. That I don't want to mislead them and think, yeah, you should be giving more to the person that you're caring for. So I wanted to make that. I noticed that difference when you're serving historically marginalized groups that they're giving a lot. Actually, they're just not being recognized for it because they're filling in the gaps of what society has taken from them and their communities.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And at the center of all of this is the role of power, too, and recognizing the power that you have. And that's a significant theme, not even just in one chapter, but really throughout the book, there's a story that comes to mind. I'm also in higher ed bureaucracy, and you tell a higher ed bureaucracy story here where you're photo taken by the university. Do you remember this?

Sarah Federman

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

And then that's like, that's Sarah Federman, you took the photo of me. I got all dressed up for you. Can I use this photo? Can you hash that story out and maybe some of the things you learned about your own power in that example, too?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, absolutely. So the university had taken a picture of me to do a little article, and then they had a bunch that they weren't going to use. And I was like, oh, can I take those from my website? Like, they're great. And it promotes the school because it's like my book and the school's names on it, all that. And they're like, no, we can't give you that photo because it belongs to the school. And I was like, okay, so how can that not belong to the school? Or how can I buy them from you? What can I do? And then she was like, are there any exceptions? Oh, well, we don't have a precedent for this. And I was like, well, that's the thing with exceptions, is that there is no precedent for them.

Phil Wagner

So I'm like, I said that out loud when I read that line. I was like I was talking to my wife. I was like, oh my gosh, this is so true. This is such a dumb moment for me. But yes, you're right. Sorry, but I love that line.

Sarah Federman

Is there exceptions? And she said there's no precedent. And I was like, you get some kind of robotic voice back. And so, in the book, I talk about different forms of power. And I think it's a useful chapter because even in writing it, I was like, oh, there's actually different kinds of power. And I had to figure out which one I had, which one she had, and where was mine. Right. So, she had administrative power. Those who are in power, if you've noticed, they send shorter emails than those with less power because they don't have to give you all their reasons, and they just can lead on the bureaucracy. But what I discovered, I was like, okay, well, I'm one, I'm willing to pay for them, so maybe that will be of interest. But who do I know that has some leverage with them? And that's the relational power. And we know they always say it's who you know. But in bureaucracies, it's really helpful. So, I was able to work with someone who I knew worked with that person. It's like, how do I get through? And then she was able to say, you got to give the photos because I had no like logic, was not going to win. You can be morally right or just factually right. And it doesn't matter because power doesn't need to justify itself to you. That's what power is unless you have enough of it. Right. Or like in a whole group of people to topple it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And you talk about finding power is ultimately about finding a productive way through and not moving away from emotions, but using those effectively, using networks effectively, and also being conscientious. You're not being a jerk in the process, either. Right. You're thinking about how you're presenting yourself, your own personal brand, how you're treating others. So it's just constantly mindful process, but I think it's a good reminder of the power you have in ways you may not suspect. So I love how the book really invites us to kind of dig deeper and start to map this out, to figure out, okay, how can we move forward?

Sarah Federman

Yeah. And just on that, with emotions, you get the email, and you might be scream or have a frustrating moment and be mad at the person for a second. But that practice of separating the people from the problem, which William Yuri talks about, I think is really important, and then kind of get strategic about it. If you can't build that rapport with them. Oftentimes, we're not even meeting these people that we're writing to. Right? There's no rapport. So you need someone that has that human contact with them. So yeah, backing up. And that's the part about social change. People feel so powerless right now to do anything about what's going on in the world. But there's a lot actually we can do. We've maybe become passive, maybe. I don't know if it's through consuming, just a lot of consuming a lot rather than doing a lot, but there's a lot we can do and use our voice and work together that's productive.

Phil Wagner

One of the things I appreciate about all of your work, not just this book, but all of your work, is that you're not Pollyanna. I mean, you're very clear, and you cover very difficult topics. And in this book, you note that all things are not equal. You talk about bias on the nose, whether it's race or gender, class, all of it. We know that certainly impacts outcomes in the negotiation process. Right. There are some, you say, like personal attributes that are unrelated to the actual content of the negotiation that are going to affect how others respond to your request. So, talk to us a little bit more about how to negotiate in a context where bias might run unchecked because we've talked about this before. You and I have had conversations that organizations, corporations, communities seem to be taking the free pass to kind of duck out of conversations on bias or diversity because, right now, those ideas are under attack. How do I negotiate in an atmosphere where bias is running unchecked?

Sarah Federman

Yeah. One of the, I think, studies that surprised me the most was to see that even black managers were biased against black employees. Feel like you should feel lucky to have this job. And they were also penalizing them for asking for more money, as were the white ones. It really goes back to in a way that we've all kind of inhaled this to some degree, and I think it really helps. And I say start with ourselves, and I don't mean to start with yourself. Like, eliminate your own bias about others. Eliminate it about yourself. When you go into negotiations, are you thinking, I'm too, just fill it in young, too old, too tall? Whatever it is, get them out for you. Because that, of course, is going to affect how if you're feeling it, the other person will probably pick up on it on some level and maybe apply it too. But it helps us see that we're all carrying it because there's all kinds of things where I don't know who is the perfect age, because half of students were feeling too young, the other half were feeling too old. Some were saying, I can't do it because I'm a white male. Others were saying, I can't do it because I'm a black woman. So everybody's sort of experiencing it in some degree. So I do think that really helps. And then talking about your own experience invites other people to talk about their feelings. Like, if you talk about your feeling of not deserving or being able to have because of a certain attribute, they can share theirs, and that makes that a little less about. You need to erase the bias in your head. It's like, I'm working on erasing all of the wonders in my head, and then organizations really just having that be an open sort of conversation of like, wait a minute, just in it to be like a gotcha, like, are we asking the female candidate whether she has children? Did we just do that? I've been in these conversations. I was like, wait a minute, we didn't ask the male candidate, like, how he was going to handle his kids here. So maybe we shouldn't do that with the woman, but we have to catch ourselves.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And it reminds me of another example you share in the book related to natural hair. Last season, we had on Devin Pederica talking about natural hair and really the way in which our ideas of professionalism are very white-centric, to say the least. And so I appreciate how you contextualize negotiation at that very personal level within organizations, talking about just some of the obstacles that black and brown women have in negotiating, showing up as full, authentic selves so they can be even productive for the organization's enterprise. So there's so many examples here, and I think in a lot of negotiation text, they're so meta or the cases seem so distant from our every day, and I appreciate how you talk about the large-scale impacts, but also just the very personal, very diverse experiences of negotiation in our everyday lives.

Sarah Federman

Yeah, these were really the things that the students were thinking about. I mean, I had a student, actually, she was white, but she was spending the semester trying to let Johns Hopkins change her hair color. And her job was to move people around the hospital. And they wouldn't let her change her hair color because of, I don't know, the IDs or whatever. And she was just like, why can't I just be myself? I just does it freak the patients out? Does it make know? So she was working on that. Eventually, she left because Johns Hopkins Hospital system was far stronger than her ability to sort of negotiate that. I mean, the examples were really about corporate context. I think I quote Matilo in class was like, I'm sorry this couple in this book is having trouble. This business is having trouble with their 100 million dollar deal or whatever. Sorry for these people. I fear for that field for them, but I need to get Geico to replace my stolen car. That's cool. And I respect that you have that going on, and that's real for you. But this is what's real for me. And what's real for me is I don't know how to do my hair in this workplace because it's like, everybody's white, and am I supposed to be like, if I straighten it, then I'm like, selling out. But they were grappling with these. So, the book is filled with what they were actually negotiating for in their lives. And I think as I got closer to it, I'm like, this is actually far more real in my life, too. I actually related to it more. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

And I appreciate there's one chapter towards the end where I see that intersection, which is the chapter on violence. And so you really take it to the streets. And I love how that chapter shows both the personal impact but also the broader social impact of this work as well. Can you speak to some of those negotiations from the streets to lobby for a more secure or less violent tomorrow?

Sarah Federman

Yeah, so the chapter's called Guns Addiction and an Orchestra, which I just love that chapter. Maybe it's my favorite in some ways, but Baltimore has a lot of guns in circulation, let's just say. And being able to negotiate moments when people have a gun are not abstract. They're not TV moments there. You know, I had a student whose brother was killed by his friend accidentally, like with a handgun. These stories are now happening all around. There are other people who've been shot. So this is a very familiar topic. So, I brought in members of Safe Street. And if people don't know, that's an organization that takes formerly street-involved people back to their communities and helps them intervene in violence, gang violence, and what do they do, what do they recommend? And just like the basics, I mean, we talk about just the sheer number of guns, right? One of the biggest challenges is if you were angry 15 years ago, it took you a minute to find a gun to react, but now it's like it's right there. And so when your amygdala, your fight or flight, is running a show and you feel that your respect is on the line, you'll shoot. And it's happened. Younger and younger kids are not only getting shot are doing the shooting. We do have to handle the problem of there are so many around, but they talk about that. The first thing you have to do is you have to separate the people. Do not try to solve a problem when there's a gun in the room. If they're arguing about the bicycle, don't talk about the bicycle. It's not the time. Because you could say something, or the other person could interrupt you and trigger, and then they're shooting. So walk away, get away. I mean, even one of the workers is like, if I need to, I tell him, let's go smoke a blunt. It's like, I'd rather you smoke pot for 20 minutes than shoot somebody and have a life pendant. Right? So not traditional. They have their methods that are not traditional, but I really take that to heart, and I think we all can take something from that. In the heat of the moment, when you feel that you are upset, you are angry, you are fighting with the person, that is not the time to solve the problem. You cannot solve it from that place because you're asking the other person actually to calm you down. And they cannot do that because you're already. So you separate, breathe, come back. So yeah, that was sort of the gun. There's more in there.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, so much more throughout. I mean, the chapter on money and then gender, there's digital negotiations. So, listeners, you have to grab a copy, and we'll talk about how to do that at the end. I have two more questions for you because there's two more things that really stick out to me. We alluded to this one earlier, which is moving beyond these ideologies of win-win. You propose a win-win-win framework. Can you unpack that a little bit more for us? I think it's such thin, but help me unpack it here.

Sarah Federman

Yeah. So those who've taken negotiation classes will be familiar with the idea of win-win, which was a major concept when it came out in the 80s during the Cold War. Right. There's no like win lose if we don't negotiate well with the USSR is like a terrible loss. So, this idea that negotiation should be about you and I can both do well. We need to be creative. It's not about getting something from the other person for yourself and screwing them over. And I feel like negotiation has taught that again and again and again so well. And it's a major point that many people don't even realize that you can have a win-win. What I noticed was that this other missing of the third win, like this idea that you and I can win, but the person who's affected by the decision might not be winning. For example, I use the example of Poppleton, which was a neighborhood in Baltimore. The government city government and a development company decided they were going to redevelop it and take a hundred houses by imminent domain. Not talking to the people of Poppleton, not anticipating how connected these people were. They had been three generations there. They had a community, and they fought back. So when Brendan Scott becomes Mary has to come clean all this up, and it's a huge mess. And I think the people ultimately win this one, and they get their homes back. But really, so much of our social challenges and even our climate challenges is that there is a voice that is affected by a decision that is not at the table and not considered. I mean, the most voiceless is like a river, right? In Canada, they're getting kind of legal personhood sometimes, so they have actually some legal voice, know, animals, factory farming, all of that. And, of course, communities, anybody without power. So I take this concept comes from justice theoretician John Rawls in the sense that he talks about, you know, if a decision is ethical if you could wake up tomorrow and be anybody affected by it and you're okay with that decision. So it's kind of a justice theory. You know, ironically, he's from Baltimore, and I was, ah, why don't we apply this to negotiation win win win like who after we get the win-win, after you and I feel are excited about our decision. Okay, who might be affected by this, you know, how are they going to feel about this decision? How are they going to feel about putting toxic chemicals in their how are they going to feel? And if they're not also okay, then we have more work to do. And that's a big ask of the world, but I don't see how we're going to address any of our social climate or other changes right now if we don't start thinking this way.

Phil Wagner

It leads to a perfect final question, and it's such a pointed light. At the very end, you say, and we're going to loosely quote this here you say, a localized approach to negotiation requires more voices like, get in the game, buddy. And so I'm wondering if you might challenge our listeners. What do they need to do to become truly great in their negotiation endeavors and help not just negotiate for higher salaries, freebies at Starbucks, freebies at Apple, but to negotiate to usher in an era of transformation not just for themselves but really for all of us? Any insights? Any final takeaways?

Sarah Federman

Yeah. I want people to make lists of what they want, but big. And I don't mean just big house like, okay, when you turn on the news, and you see or you scrolling, you see something horrible, what is it that you do want? And say it. Write it down. I'm like, I want to see these old malls that are empty, turned into parks. That's what I want to see. Now, then, how can I use some of my talents or my connections to make some of these things happen? I want people to want big for the world as well as for themselves. Because we know that you're not going to be you might be rich. We know a lot of unhappy rich people, right? And you may feel important, but that will never be fulfilling deeply. You want a fulfilling life. And if you're not also negotiating for things that mean something to your soul and help reduce suffering on the planet, you're not going to be fulfilled. I don't care how much money you have. You may know billionaires. I'm that thumb and have really expressed pain, right? And part of that pain is adding master negotiation to get more stuff or to do what they thought they were supposed to do to be important but not to contribute beyond themselves. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

There's so much more in the book. I mean, so much more. It's such a good work. And so I know we hawk a lot of books on the podcast, but Sarah's a friend, and there's a reason for that. Her work is truly transformational. It has impacted the lives of our students of our faculty. It changes the way you think. I can promise you that. So I hope if you're listening, you will run out and buy a copy of Sarah's new book. Can you tell us when it releases? We're getting really close to launch.

Sarah Federman

August 22nd, and then it's still available now on all the platforms.

Phil Wagner

Everywhere? Yeah, everywhere.

Sarah Federman

Or email, go to Sarahfetterman.com and send me a message and say can I get it? I'll get you a copy. Or I'd love to hear if people read it and they tried the exercises, what happened for them, because what's fun about a book like this? Yeah, it's alive. I want to know what happens.

Phil Wagner

There's so much at the end of each chapter. Okay, so this is a good point, too. At the end of every single chapter, if there's not even just one, try this out. Often, there are multiple. They are fun, they are accessible, they are adaptable to variety of different contexts. So Sarah, you really put your all into this work as you do with all of your other content. This is no surface-level book on negotiations, so again, please run out grab a copy of Sarah's latest book, Transformative Negotiations Strategies for Everyday Change and Equitable Futures. Sarah, I can't wait for the next time that we get to chat on this podcast. It's always a pleasure to chat with you. Thanks for the work that you do, and thanks for joining us today.

Sarah Federman

Thanks. Thanks so much. Thanks, everyone, for still listening. I really do want to hear what happens when you read it. I mean it.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Tara Borchers
Tara BorchersEpisode 42: April 24, 2023
Global DEI Work

Tara Borchers

Episode 42: April 24, 2023

Global DEI Work

On today's show, we welcome Tara Borchers, a graduate of the William & Mary MBA program who has had a multi-dimensional career since leaving Miller Hall. In the past two years, she has served at PRA Group as both the Global HRIS director and as head of Diversity and Inclusion and HR Technology. Tara talks about how she transitioned from an MBA professional to doing DEI work, what influences her global lens for diversity, and so much more.

Podcast (audio)

Tara Borchers: Global DEI Work TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Tara found her way from an MBA to DEI work
  • What aspect of education and training help propel one into the DEI space
  • What it means to have a global lens for DEI work
  • How to learn all of the nuances of DEI work around the globe
  • The importance of listening, learning, and asking questions
  • How best to recover from a DEI mistake
  • The difference between DEI compliance vs commitment
  • How to establish coherent DEI global goals
  • How to best implement meaningful social support provisions to geographically dispersed employees
Transcript

Tara Borchers

But you're not going to get everyone on board. And if that is your intent, you are probably setting yourself up for some sadness.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we get ready to take a deep dive into the real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today's guest, Tara Borchers, is one of our own and a graduate of our MBA program. She's had a multi-dimensional career since leaving Miller Hall and has served for the past two years at PRA Group, first as the Global HRIS director and then most recently as the head of Diversity and Inclusion and HR technology. She's out there doing the work, the real work, every single day. Tara, welcome. It is always good to speak with alumni. I'm certain I've messed something up about your background. Tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and how you found your way from the MBA into DEI work.

Tara Borchers

Hey, Phil. Thanks. Yeah, no, actually, that's probably the best way of describing me. When you said that, I was like, I like it multi-dimensional. That's another word of that could be kind of random. I played inside of DEI space, HR, technology, risk. And that's fun. It's like one of those things that allows you to have a really broad perspective and be able to kind of weave in and out of people, processes, programs, technologies, and it's been great.

Phil Wagner

I'm already going off-script here because, of course, I am. A lot of times, I think we see a natural progression from HR into DEI. Based on your experience, do you think it's helpful, particularly for students, our own MBA students, who want to find their way into DEI work, to have done coursework or have done experience in HR, or do you think the tech has helped you? Do you think it's a mindset that has helped you most in that space? Is there any particular aspect of your education or training that really naturally propelled you in the DEI space?

Tara Borchers

No, I think some of the best experience I have comes from working inside of talent management processes and consulting with leaders and coaching leaders. And I think that's because you think about the lifecycle of an employee, understanding that experience from how you hire someone, how you identify talent and build talent, how you prepare someone for the next level so that they can be successful. Those things actually, I think, have been most impactful and helpful because those are the areas where if you're really thinking about building a diverse or robust talent pipeline, those programs and practices really, really matter.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. I'm already taking notes. I'm like, that's a perfect framework, I think, for when we work with our own students here. So during the first time we met, you talked about your work, and you positioned yourself as someone who thinks globally. You said directly I tend to think globally. I think I am guilty so often of taking not just a Western lens but just a US-centric lens to DEI work because we work with 200 to 400 students every single year, many of whom will work here in the States. So I'm hoping I can learn from you today. Can you speak to where your global lens sort of came from, how you developed it, and how it shapes and defines your approach to DEI work?

Tara Borchers

My brother and I often joke that we have the best childhood. We grew up in a little nook in Northern Virginia where no one on the street in which we lived in was the same. Socioeconomic status, family status, race, religion. It was all different. And so, as a child, I just had fun. Like, I had friends, and I had their parents, and I had their grandparents, and I had their cousins. And people were very real to me. And I think that that's one of the things that was so helpful for me was that I was always around people who we had a lot of similarities and we had a lot of differences. And I loved them. They're my friends. I think about how that translated to work. I've been able to work at a lot of global companies with people who either emigrated to the US and work but they come from a different culture or from people who are still living in their country of origin. And I think the things I learned as a child have been really helpful. Just like that natural curiosity of being able to kind of ask questions that make you familiar with each other, of being able to actually understand the nuances of why people might approach something different and not being worried about their differences threatening my own sense of myself.

Phil Wagner

Oh, that's good.

Tara Borchers

And I think that when I think about how that matters in the workplace, people who have less experiences, I think a lot of times that's the harder thing is being able to kind of break it open a little bit and be able to appreciate and ask questions and engage and be okay with differences because those differences are actually where the beauty comes in. Like the cracks in the window where the sun shines, and so it just allows you to really kind of be able to see and appreciate the value that comes from a group of people who are really super different.

Phil Wagner

Love that. So I think as a guiding mental model, that really sort of sets the bar very high for us. It gives us something to aspire to. I'm wondering, on the ground level, what sort of differentiates a global approach to DEI as opposed to maybe just sort of, again, like, my own approach, which is often misguided sort of focused here on the nuances of the States and DEI within sort of our own complex political and social system right now. Looks a lot different than how DEI work might play out globally. Right? Like racism in Europe operates differently than how racism in the US plays out. Same system, different structures. So can you speak to how DEI work might play out differently globally?

Tara Borchers

Yeah, I think one of the things that is really interesting is that you can measure things, but measurements have no feelings, and they don't really tell you the story.

Phil Wagner

I love that.

Tara Borchers

It's important. Data is incredibly important. And I once had a leader that I had the pleasure of learning from when I was doing executive development. And he gave advice to this cohort, and he was like, data is not good data, it's not bad data, it's just data.

Phil Wagner

Yes.

Tara Borchers

Out there.

Phil Wagner

Yes.

Tara Borchers

And if someone can trust your data, then you can have a conversation about what does this data say? How do we feel about this? Is this representative of this? Right? But data has no feelings. People do. So you can decide that you're going to do a program from a global standpoint, such as an ERG, an employee resource group, and you can say, yeah, we're going to talk about caregiving. Because if you think about generationally where people are, there are people who are caring for their children, they're caring for their adult children who are not going to leave their home due to neurodiversity issues or health issues or any other kind of diagnoses, and then they may have their parents they're caring for. So caregiving is like one of those things that you might look and be like, oh, it's like a universal global matter. Everybody's doing caregiving. Everybody is. But depending on where you are around the globe, the cultural norms about how a family cares for each other are very different. Even in the States, how families care for each other are very different. Sometimes it's regional. Sometimes it is related to economics. Sometimes it is truly cultural and based upon someone's, like the culture of their home, of native origin versus their American. But if you go into Europe and you go into the Nordics, the Nordics, that is a country that provides so much as a part of being a citizen, in Sweden or in Norway or in some of the other countries in the north region. So that experience is different than a person in the UK who also has some government-provided benefits versus the US who has less government-provided benefits. So the burden is different on a family. The approach is different on a family. The needs are different on a family. So it's one of those things that you all share the common element, but the practice is different, and the nuance is different. And so if you tried to tell everybody that we were going to have an employee resource group that was focused on caregiving and it was going to be from the US point of view, it would really miss the nuances of what is happening locally or regionally. And at the same point, if you were having one from the Swedish point of view or the Norwegian point of view, everyone would be trying to move there because you'd look at it and you'd be like, wow, that is a very different perspective. And so, to me, that's the concept of being able to understand that the way of life is different and what is available to you is different. And frankly, how you age is different. It's upon how you lived your life anyways. And we all know from the data out there that that is different based upon the country that you're in.

Phil Wagner

No, I really love this. So I have a dear friend, Liz Stigler, who's at the Chinese American Service League. She's been on a previous episode, and we asked her what would make your life like. What could everyday normal leaders people do to make your life as a DEI officer better? And she gave something that was so surprising, but it really resonated with me, and she said, don't tune out. Pay attention to what's sort of going on in your political systems, not just nationally but globally and at the community level. And I hear those themes here too. To be a good DEI practitioner means globally pay attention to how structures are different, how systems are different, how institutions are different. How did you learn to grapple all that? One of the things grapple with all that, I should say one of the things I struggle with is that there's no one canon for DEI work. When it comes to workplace safety. We've got entire systems and structures and manuals. When it comes to the law and or HR policy, we have sort of a consistent canon, but not really in DEI. So you've got a sort of self-fashion and education in, I mean, everything race, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, like all of the different identity affinities. That's a lot of education to sort of self-develop and then to think about how those play out globally, how that looks in Russia, how that looks in Israel, how that looks in East Asia, how that looks in South Africa. I mean, these are all so different. How do you, as a DEI practitioner, do the professional development to become aware of all the different global nuances? That's a lot to take on, isn't it?

Tara Borchers

It is. And one, I think you should never expect yourself to hit the level of mastery. I think you should just commit yourself to lifetime listening and hoping that through the listening and discovering that you're actually learning so that you can apply. I do think that one of the courses I took at a different university when I was studying human development was on understanding really cultural nuances and having some context for how it is different, how conversations are different, how conflict is different, how based upon the society, how men and women interact differently just based upon those things. I find myself having that conversation with friends and colleagues on the US side. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we hear like, oh, I don't see differences, which is a dangerous thing. It's a limiting thing. Right. See the difference so that you can put it in perspective and make the assumption that someone is not behaving a certain way. Understand why they're behaving differently than your norm. What is their norm? Just ask a couple of questions about that. How comfortable are you challenging that, and why is that? And I think part of it is getting really good at asking questions and just assuming that you need to always be listening and learning and asking questions and getting very comfortable asking questions. I had the person who worked for me once while I was in the tech side of my life, and like you ask so many questions, it really is embarrassing. And I was like, oh, okay. And so it made me really self-conscious. So I stopped asking questions that were still swimming in my head. And then I started watching things play out, and I was like, you know what? I need to have confidence in the fact that I can see something and I'm asking questions for a reason. So maybe I need to be better at putting context around why I'm asking a question.

Phil Wagner

That's good.

Tara Borchers

Or be more intentional about pulling the thread. If I ask this question, because now I'm asking this question, so what does that mean? And I think especially when you're in DEI work, where you're going to pull the thread. We are a tapestry, right? And there are very many threads that are coming through, and the back end of a tapestry is just gnarly, and the front end is beautiful. There's somebody who's always weaving, and if you are in DEI, you are weaving. You're always kind of like coming in and out. You're pulling threads, you're finding things, and you have to be okay knowing that you do not know it all.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And having, I think, the intellectual humility when you thread the wrong way to back it up. Right? I mean, I'm certain that you've been there too, right? You've been in places where you've dropped the ball, certainly, right? You've done things the wrong way. How do you recover from those types of things? Any advice to people who might find themselves having dropped the ball? Well-intentioned in their pursuit of outcomes, but maybe not perfect in the achievement?

Tara Borchers

Well, good old-fashioned owning it never hurt anybody. I mean, it does. There are times you can really mess something up, and you're like, oh, I got to take it, and I got to own it. And it does hurt. But what you're doing is showing some integrity that bridges any kind of position, right, of saying like, this was mine and I failed to execute, I executed poorly, I missed it, whatever. And I think that that's just a natural being of being able to do that. I also think that there are times, and especially what I found in DEI is, that sometimes when we miss it is because we have failed to ground ourselves in meaning. A good old-fashioned operational definition. So another part of my random past is I have a black belt that I generally refer to as agree belt because I don't use the black belt, but I use so much of it. I pick and choose the things that I think are super meaningful. And what I apply to my talent world, to my HR technology world, and to DEI is operational definitions. When I say orange, this is what orange looks like to me. What does orange look like to you? And then I'll hear you say something, and you might say something like, oh, interesting. Okay, so that's orange to you. To me, that is a mandarin. And so you're just starting to talk about the nuances of differences. And that's an important element that I think sometimes can keep you from failure in the first place is to be really kind of clear. But I also think the most important part of failure in DEI or any other scope is a fast follow of not defending but not attacking. How did we fail? And let's capture it now. So that we're really thinking about how to adapt and learn quickly while it stings is the best time to actually figure that stuff out and document it so that you don't like when you're going back to that program, process, conversation, or whatever, you're less likely to fail in the same time. People will forgive the first failure usually, right? They'll even forgive the second failure. But if you keep failing, they're going to start questioning whether or not you have the discipline to execute something. And so you're better off not failing a second time. And you actually can control that most time if you're really thinking about how to prevent it being maybe a little bit more cautious, muscle memory get you in a good space.

Phil Wagner

This is so good. And I'm still stuck on the oranges and mandarins sort of thing you tee up here. Because what I think of then is that we can do such a great job of establishing context, or I would say like establishing the why, right, that we would all have this clear understanding of why we do what we do, but we're still going to have different access points. You've managed DEI initiatives. How do you sort of corral your human capital around this central why, recognizing that everybody has different access points, right? Our personal experiences or some people will only get to this commitment through the business case, which I think is a little nauseating, but if I can get you, I can get you. Some will do it only out of compliance. Some do it out of sort of a moral obligation or political buy-in. Like, how do you corral everybody's different access points to the central DEI? Why that you try to situate within your organization?

Tara Borchers

Do you need to corral everybody?

Phil Wagner

That's good.

Tara Borchers

And I just say, like, think Gladwell. Isn't Gladwell the one who talks about, like, mavens and connectors? I think it's important to know who you need to corral versus trying to get everyone on board. And I think that sometimes is probably a little bit clinical, maybe a little bit surgical, but you're not going to get everyone on board. And if that is your intent, you are probably setting yourself up for some sadness, some stress, some dissatisfaction. And so I think it's about being more thoughtful about what is it that you're trying to do. Who are the people who can best influence, advise, empower? Who are the people who are committed? The difference between commitment and compliance, right? Compliance is just like transactional, and commitment is much more emotional. And so it's kind of like, who's going to be there? And I think that once you do things well, over time, you continue to listen, evolve, put more chairs at the table, then you start to gain momentum. One of the things that I say a lot inside of the talent space because I think if you're thinking DEI is not talent, but they really are connected. You need to keep an abundance mentality. You have to keep putting chairs at the table. Maybe you need to add an extension to the table. Don't keep the table to a finite amount of people who can be engaged. Make sure that there's room for everyone and people can come to the table, or they can choose not to come to the table. But if you're in DEI, you are best having a big table and to just keep thinking about making space and making meaningful space. Don't burn people out on non-value-added things, but keep room at the table for conversations and for insight and for, storytelling and for, data gathering, and all those things.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love so much of how you speak about DEI because you have such balance. You and I, in a past conversation, have talked about the balance between sort of DEI as an art and also as a science. And I agree that data is monumentally important, but you also don't flee from emotions, and I think that's so important here. You mentioned storytelling specifically, and I think that specifically can just light a fire in otherwise skeptical folks. To hear the real lived experiences, to see through a different lens of reality. How different folks walk through this world differently, I think, can really illuminate a lot. Let's talk a little bit about the balance of DEI as an art and a science. First, let's talk about the science. We talk about measurement. Measurement is so important. How do you measure and set metrics or KPIs globally when different parts of the global community see identity-related and employment issues differently? Like, how do you establish coherent KPIs, metrics, goals that can be actualized when this plays out so differently?

Tara Borchers

Yeah, it's really true. And part of it is there is no perfect way, or maybe there is, and if you find one, please let me know or send that person to me to have a chat.

Phil Wagner

You got it.

Tara Borchers

But I don't know of a way where you can get grounded in one place on what it looks like to have representation of people who are qualified to work in your organization. In the US, we have that with the EEOC. That's a good place to start to be able to really understand the industry you're in, the locations that you're in, and then be able to say, so, if that's the case, what does the EEOC tell me? Based upon all of their data, and they have all the data, what does it look like? What is a good expectation of the available population wherever I am in the industry, I am? I think that's a good place to start at times is starting with the data that you have and being able to kind of say, if that is what it is, let's look at our US population. Because sometimes you do have to just kind of break it down to your point, place by place, what's our US population? And let's look at our jobs and our roles and kind of look at it that way. And you can choose to look at other countries or regions the same way. You can break them down country by country. I don't know of other countries, and that is probably a short sight of mine, that have the same amount of data available, though some of them make a lot of data available. I just don't think it's, to my knowledge, as clean and crisp as the EEOC data. But it might be, and I actually might give myself the task of doing some exploration on that. I think that's one thing you look outside. I think the other thing is where the art and science is where you look inside, and you really look at your roles, and you really think about, and you do your data, and you do your analysis, you chart things, you see where people are in your organization and the types of roles they're in. And then you do have to start to say, where are we missing an opportunity to be intentional about finding talent that is different than what we have today? Finding or developing talent internally so that they're ready for another organization and things like that, or another part of the organization and things like that. I do think that it's something that you can report on globally, but it is not global work. If that makes sense, because once again, it's just data. You actually need to put people together in a room who can talk about the meaning of the data. I feel like I've totally rambled on that, but it's just that there's no silver bullet.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Tara Borchers

And I think that's the hard thing for any of us when we're working through it is like there is the nuanced conversations, and there might be the reality of, hey, in this country, they are predominantly white. In the culture of the country, it is predominant that men have college educations, and we have an industry that requires certain skill sets that you acquire typically through college. There may be all of these extenuating circumstances that already really narrow the pipeline. And so then you may look at that and say, okay, so if that's the case, then let's understand and accept the reality of the situation of the country. And then let's look at the culture of our organization in there. And that's where having engagement surveys for where I work now, we have an engagement and inclusion survey where we're really kind of asking questions. That's where you can kind of get a toad and a temperament of how are you doing? It's also really important to know that not every country allows you to have access to all that data.

Phil Wagner

And that's one of the things I was wondering, too. Like global privacy laws, right? Even just around data protection, there have to be sort of country-specific deterrence to even getting good data, right?

Tara Borchers

Well, and so I would say there is no such thing as a global privacy law. There are country-specific privacy laws.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's what I should have said.

Tara Borchers

I liked how you said that. Gave me a little good entry, and so I could kind of challenge that. So I appreciate that.

Phil Wagner

You got it. That's what I'm here for.

Tara Borchers

Yeah, I did a great job. But there's even inside the United States. There are state-specific laws that also are kind of modeled off of some European privacy laws. You do have to kind of think about that, and I actually think that's a great thing because it is protecting us as individuals. It's challenging companies to think about why you need this data in the first place. If you're in DEI, it just stinks because that data matters. You might want to look at it through the lens of a person who is bisexual, and you might want to just really kind of slice and dice the data, and you don't have it because in a specific country, maybe you're not even allowed to ask for it. Or in different countries, it is just the practice where people do not share it. And so you have to kind of know and understand that that data may not be available to you, which is why you still have to have a good old-fashioned conversation. You still have to have access to things. It's also why employee resource groups are phenomenal because you can self-select into an employee resource group. When you're going in there, you can have real conversations inside of a community that allows people to listen and learn from each other. And so that is kind of like the art and science of there are processes, there are technologies, there's data points that you can and should put in place, but they will never replace the value of human interaction inside of DEI.

Phil Wagner

No. That's so, so good. That's so, so good. So I have, I think, probably one final question, which is, you know, we talked about the science. I'm wondering a little bit more about the art, or maybe the framing is the impact of the work. I'm wondering how your measurements, assessments, or work sort of impact the lived daily experiences of employees. I mean, how do you turn the insights that you gather into actionable outcomes that are realistic? How do you turn those insights and actions into maybe the implementation of social support specifically? You and I had a very specific conversation a few months ago on specifically like trans identity and how somebody who lives as trans in San Francisco that looks a lot different than what it means to be trans in Guatemala or Thailand, or Ethiopia. So how do you know how to best implement meaningful social support provisions to employees who are geographically dispersed?

Tara Borchers

I think that when you have the perfect answer for that, Phil, also call me back.

Phil Wagner

I got you. So I got a running list here of things to call. I got you.

Tara Borchers

We're learning together right back to that earlier conversation. I think, once again, it is about being intentional in conversations with people who are trans. Either the people who are inside of your organization who you're trying to support and also organizations that support people who are trans. But that is intentional work. That is about really trying to seek to understand a person who has a different life experience, perhaps, than you do. And it lives inside of a society that may be more accepting or less accepting. And even if you are a trans person in San Francisco, you still are probably worried for your safety at times, right? Or all the time. If you are in different parts of this world, you are worried for your life, and you are worried for the life of your family and the people that you associate with. Your common everyday fear is very, very different because the risk is very different. So I think when you are dealing with areas that you are less familiar with, and you are in regions where you do not know, you have got to tap other resources. You're never going to be 100% alone are never going to be 100% in DEI, but you can put together something that is 100%, but it is probably going to rely on you to expand your network. Look inside of local groups who are supporting areas. The Trevor Project. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the Trevor Project.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Tara Borchers

Absolutely wonderful group. Right. And for those of you who may not know, the Trevor Project is really committed to preventing suicide amongst LGBTQ youth, and I would assume also adults, but I know that that's often what their hallmark is. Groups like that are groups that you have to be engaged with. You have to fund. You have to commit to. If that is part of your value system as an organization, you need to make sure that the people who are really on the ground focusing on specific groups are funded enough so that they can do that. That is why inside of DEI as well, you need to be thinking about who your community engagement partners are inside of your organization and having intentional conversations about how you engage in your community, not to just support the person, but to support the groups who support them.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. And I think the higher-order call here is to not see any identity affinity as a monolith. Right. Again, all of those experiences, race, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender, all of the isms the identity experiences, those are going to play out differently based on context. And so this is about reading the room, the global room, and thinking and being very mindful. Not to just assume it's all things to all people, but to be very specific and have precision, almost surgical, in our approach to adapt how we implement our DEI initiatives. Tara, it's lovely talking to you. Thank you for the important work that you do. You represent the Mason School so, so well. And I know you're, you're doing a million things, so it truly is an honor to speak with you. Thanks for giving some of your time to be on our podcast. Lots of fun.

Tara Borchers

I can also say this at the end.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, please.

Tara Borchers

I love that you are hosting this. I think it is so incredibly important, and I hope that people pay attention to the conversations because the power is in the conversations and learning. And so kudos to you.

Phil Wagner

Well, thank you.

Tara Borchers

It's wonderful.

Phil Wagner

Thank you. Thank you, my friend. Always good to chat with you.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Jesse Ross
Jesse RossEpisode 41: April 10, 2023
Fostering Cultural Self-Awareness

Jesse Ross

Episode 41: April 10, 2023

Fostering Cultural Self-Awareness

Today, we're really excited to speak with Jesse Ross. Jesse is a DEI consultant, executive coach, an international speaker, and is extremely well-traveled, having delivered over 400 engagements at colleges, conferences, corporations, non-profits, and beyond. He has worked with a number of clients on their DEI initiatives, including LinkedIn, General Mills, the NBA, and more. He's a father, a husband, and a community leader.

Podcast (audio)

Jesse Ross: Fostering Cultural Self-Awareness TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • Why we should care about cultural self-awareness
  • What we mean when we say cultural self-awareness
  • Why it's important to be culturally self-aware when approaching DEI work
  • How to negotiate the different processes of being self-aware culturally
  • What are some steps to take to achieve cultural self-awareness
  • How to deal with a problematic cultural heritage
  • What it will take for everyone to get on the same DEI page
Transcript

Jesse Ross

And so, for me, the self-awareness or even recognizing, starting with ourselves, is we do have a choice. Now, do those choices become more difficult or harder when the decks are stacked against you? Absolutely.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, podcast friends, to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. I'm really excited to speak today with Jesse Ross. Jesse Ross is a DEI consultant, an executive coach, and an international speaker. He's super well-traveled, having delivered over 400 engagements at colleges, conferences, corporations, nonprofits, and beyond. He has worked with a number of clients on their DEI initiatives, including LinkedIn, General Mills, the MBA, Security and Financial, and beyond. He's out there. He's doing the work. He's doing the real work.

Phil Wagner

Jesse, it's an honor to host you here, my friend. Welcome to our podcast. Tell our listeners maybe a little bit more about you and what it is that you do day in and day out.

Jesse Ross

Yeah, thank you for having me, Phil. I'm very grateful to be here. It's always weird when people read your bio, you're like, oh, yeah, I did do that. What I try to tell people is, first and foremost, I'm a father, I'm a husband, I genuinely love my family. So when I'm not doing all the stuff that people will read about, I'm at home with my family, making sure that they survive and don't tear up my home. So that's the main thing. And then outside of that, man, I'm very invested in my community. We'll probably kind of get into this maybe a little bit later, but I'm in the process of actually purchasing a commercial real estate property in my own community, which is a whole other part of the DEI space. And then just enjoying people. I feel like we're finally getting back to people being outside and enjoying seeing each other. And so I'm just trying to enjoy the Minnesota summer because that's where I'm located, and it doesn't last long, so I'm trying to take it up as much as possible.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's no such thing as enjoying the Virginia summer. It sort of, like, teases us, and then it is here in full force, and it is. I mean, I lived in South Florida for many years, and I would argue it's worse here. Enjoy your Minnesota summer.

Jesse Ross

I'll take it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I am really excited to hear a little bit more about that real estate development. I don't think that we talk enough about space and place in our conversations on community and DEI, and I think that's a very important conversation to have. So certainly something we'll tee up in a little bit. But what I'm hoping we can do today to start things off is to talk about something I know you speak to regularly, which is cultural self-awareness. We talk a lot about self-awareness in the context of executive leadership. I work with MBA students and masters of accounting students and students who are, like, bound for the C suite. So tell us a little bit more from your perspective about why we should care about cultural self-awareness within this broader realm of DEI work.

Jesse Ross

Yeah, it's a great question. So one of the most basic ways that I enjoy tackling this is you just mentioned, right, Virginia summer, you used to live in Florida, and I live in Minnesota. Right. Those three places are so completely different. Right. There's some definition similarity that again, but if we're just talking about summers, right, literally our summers are about eight weeks, maybe, because it literally goes from winter, winter, winter, winter, winter, to, like, one day of spring to summer and then back to fall, and so then it kind of runs that way. Right. But we get a lot of snow, and our winter season is also construction season. And so it's like figuring out how that happens. And there are certain things that happen in the Twin Cities or in Minnesota that, just by geography, are completely different than Virginia, completely different than Florida, completely different than California. And so when we're talking about cultural self-awareness, it's not just like the top line things that we can see race, ethnicity, gender, language, all of those things which are important, for sure, but it's really diving deeper into what is part of the culture and what makes up culture. A lot of it is place, a lot of it is climate, a lot of it is language. And so, really, I'm trying to help people recognize, like, you may operate out of this way due to things that were really not even under your control. I was born in Jackson, Mississippi, moved here to Minneapolis when I was a baby. I didn't have any control of that. My parents are from the South, so some of the values that we kind of have are very similar, probably to those folks that grew up in Virginia or in Florida, because it's a Southern kind of feel. We have this thing called Minnesota Nice, where it's basically very passive aggressiveness. Right. And I don't have that bone in my body simply because of my parents and where they came from. And so I'm trying to help people recognize, like, definitely be self-aware, but there are things culturally that are beyond those top line things that go deeper that really shape our perspective and our worldview.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's a lot of unpacking. Right. And I think skeptics come to this and say, okay, self-awareness cool. But, like, in the context of DEI, you're talking about this in the context of the United States, which is a melting pot of cultures. Does it really matter that we focus on those nuances? But I think those nuances and how they intersect, of course, either complicate or make the space easier to toil within. A lot of what you do invites us to think about starting with us. And that seems counterintuitive, I think, at first. Right. In the context of DEI, we think about helping others, building a better world for other folks. Why do you think it's important to begin with looking at ourselves, looking at our culture, looking at our history, and being self-aware first and foremost?

Jesse Ross

Yeah. Honestly, it's the only thing we really can control. To put it as basic as possible. I can't control the teacher that taught me the thing in third grade, nor can I actually go back and change that. I really can't even control what my parents decided was best for me. Right. I may have a little bit of influence, but not really. But right now, as an adult, I control what I see, well, to some degree, what I see on social media, what I decide to read, where I decide to spend my time, how I decide who I decide to hang out with. And I think that us piece is so important because we like to be the victim of societal problems. We like to say, well, it was the administration, it was the government, it was my job, it was the thing, the thing, the thing. And so I'm hoping to create some responsibility to say, well, you are your own human being, and you are in control of way more than you actually realize. And since now I can get that across to you, if it starts with us, how much can we actually control or change or shift? Now, that is a very difficult question because we don't like to change. We don't like to be honest about where we are. But I'm really hoping that if we can recognize that things were not maybe right or can be different, then it allows us to create this legacy of influencing other people that the world can also be a little different.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So I think this plays out differently for different groups of people. I'm really always hesitant to use the victim approach, but the g of the matter is some people are, quote-unquote, victims of a society that is riddled with systemic and institutional racisms as just one example, right?

Jesse Ross

Absolutely.

Phil Wagner

This journey towards self-awareness and self-awareness in shaping how we address those inequities that's going to play out differently for different people groups. Right. Like self-awareness in the DEI space is going to look different from what for white folks than it is for black and brown folks or for queer folks. So how do you negotiate the different sort of processes to being culturally self-aware?

Jesse Ross

That's a great observation. I can only speak for myself. Right. I don't speak for every black human being or every male. Growing up, my mother and I were never my mother, and my dad were never married. My mother passed away when I was eleven years old, went to go live with my dad, but we didn't have a great relationship. And then I left home. Right. Now, I could say, and I did say for a really long time, things would be a lot different if my mom was here. And I believe that. That's definitely true. I also decided that because things were different, that this is the way my life has to be or is going to be. Right, now, one would argue, and I loved your point. Right. I don't necessarily like even saying and using the term victim. It came out, and I immediately cringed.

Phil Wagner

No, I didn't mean to correct you. I think you used it entirely well. It's more just me as I reconcile with because we come from different positionalities. Right. You're a man of color. I am not. I think even just how we use the same words.

Jesse Ross

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

So no, that was me personally not saying, oh, you said something because it's perfect.

Jesse Ross

I got you. I did say, because of this thing that happened here's, how my life is going to be, and to some aspects that it probably was true. But there were a lot of things that I did not understand about the world, about how to process emotions, about how the world viewed me, where I kind of just played into it unknowingly, unconsciously. And then, as I graduated high school, went to college, there was a whole other narrative, and I became more aware of that. And I think there was a very clear moment where I said, you know what, I'm not going to do that in multiple areas of my life. And so, for me, the self-awareness or even recognizing, starting with ourselves, is we do have a choice. Now do those choices become more difficult or harder when the decks are stacked against you? Absolutely. Do those choices become difficult or harder when the world or your space of influence or circle of influence shows you only one side of the story? Absolutely right. But I think once we get to the point where we can say even what you just mentioned right, is like, well, I'm just aware that things are different because we grew up differently, we look differently, we probably had different experiences. That truth alone can uncover so many other truths. But the difficult thing is recognizing that that is actually a truth. And then the hardest part that I see people struggle with is if that's true, that means something else is untrue.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jesse Ross

And if something else is untrue and it's only one thing, there's probably about 10,000 or 10 million things that are untrue. And I'm afraid of actually uncovering that because the world as I know it is going to become different. And I think we are just afraid and fearful of change and doing something different, and so I'm hoping that people will take up the challenge or the call of, hey, you are also in control of more than you realize. But it does actually start with you and how much influence that we have. I think sometimes that kind of plays a part too. I hope that was explained.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it is. And I think to me it's getting comfortable with the fact that, and this is, I think, uncomfortable for some people, there can be multiple truths in any given context. Right. Like, I think that it's true that individual mindset matters, but also you can have the most resilient mindset in the world, and that mindset alone is not going to be the latter that allows you to climb out of a pit of multiple generations or centuries of systemic and institutional racism. And so we work on maybe one and the other. I'm always very nervous to be like, let's work on resilience, but I think let's work on mindset shifts while we also address institutional change as well. And there's sort of multiple truths that I think can exist in that space. That's sort of my perspective. I'm not sure if it resonates with you or not, but I think from that lens of cultural self-awareness, recognizing that this is multidimensional, this is very nuanced and complicated, and so it's looking at the whole gamut of how to address these systemic inequities.

Jesse Ross

Yeah, and you got to get people, and that's why the questions I don't think your questions are tricky, but for people who don't do this on a regular basis, it can be very compartmentalizing or tricky because people feel or want to solve the whole thing. And it's like, Nah, this is way deeper than anything that you're going to solve today or even next week. But we can take a small piece and start working on that and start seeing the correlation between that area and then something else. And then it starts to kind of unravel, hopefully in a good way versus in a bad way.

Phil Wagner

So we're talking about cultural self-awareness. How do you become culturally self-aware? How do you understand your own cultural context, your own cultural heritage? What do you mean by being culturally self-aware? And how do you attain that?

Jesse Ross

Yeah, so I try to walk people through, again, very basic, and I make the joke in all sincerity and genuineness. I try to deliver things very GED-certified, right? Not that people, and I think when people hear that context, it can be very basic, very attainable information, so that people aren't having these very complex things and feel like, I don't know if I can do that. So I tell people to kind of just look at literally, like, where did you grow up? So geographically, where did you grow up? What were inside your household? Certain things that might have happened in the city or the county or the country, wherever you may have lived at. Right. What were expectations that were placed upon you? If you grew up in a rural community and you grew up on a farm, everybody pretty much worked, or most of the time, all the guys worked. Right. And that might be a true thing. So think about those things, those small expectations that were based upon you. Then you can kind of think, go a little bit further. Right. Neighborhood norms. In my neighborhood that I grew up, there were a couple of folks that always looked out. There was a couple of older ladies that were always on their front porches, and they kind of lived in like two separate blocks, and they knew everything. Right. They were like the community watch folks. They're also, during the holiday season, there's like a parkway where everybody, whether it's holidays or if it's July 4, whatever, they like, in synchronization, will coordinate their lights and put up flags and do all these different decorations and stuff. And so maybe there were some neighborhood norms or what seemed normal, right, to you. And then we kind of go a little bit higher and further. And so I'd start to get people like, let's just focus on where you are first, then expand a little bit. Think about those broader community expectations. You start playing fine, or you start getting involved in fine arts, extracurricular activities, and then there are things that start to go a little further out. Right. Subcultures things that happen. My son's in the choir, and there's a whole choir culture community, but giving people very basic information. It's like if I can just start here and see what are things that typically happen. And then, if you can identify a person from a different cultural community than yours, right? So you and I can do this. Let me actually ask you this question. Do you at all celebrate Thanksgiving? Christmas, kind of like.

Phil Wagner

Both of those, specifically.

Jesse Ross

Perfect. Let's just do Thanksgiving because I like to eat. What are either meals or kind of things that you typically do to celebrate the holiday?

Phil Wagner

We definitely do. So we get up early we start food prep. I love to cook because I also love to eat. And we go for all of the Southern classics, I think.

Jesse Ross

There you go.

Phil Wagner

For us. So it's like very much turkey, ham, macaroni, and cheese, of course. We've got greens, we've got rolls, we've got dressing, we've got potatoes, we've got yams. All the stuff, all the stuff. And then we typically will do some sort of like we'll go outside or something. Like we'll get our bodies moving. And then we'll eat, eat, and then we will sit back and watch some sports, watch a movie, come back, eat it again. Yeah, kind of just keep doing that.

Jesse Ross

Absolutely. Do you all typically eat at the same time almost every year or so?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think so. Probably around anywhere between 130 and 230 in that vicinity. Like a little bit late. So you're extra hungry. You're like, you really want it?

Jesse Ross

Yes, I love it. Okay, now and then, let's just do, and I'm coming back, don't worry. For Christmas or kind of in that season. Same thing or a little different?

Phil Wagner

Little different. We will travel and see family around the bookends of the Christmas holiday, which is what we celebrate in our household. But we will always make it a point to be back by midday Christmas Eve. So that my little family of four, my wife and my two kids. It's just us in our space. Christmas Eve is like pajamas and some yummy food, probably like baking cookies for Santa. My kids never bought Santa. Sorry if your kids are listening in the car, and you might my kids never bought it. But however you celebrate or whatever you celebrate, totally fine. Then we'll get up early, and it's like family day. And so I think the bigger tradition is more just like family togetherness in that space where that's a no email day, that's a no folk, that's just us day. And all the presents, all the food we'll typically drive around, look at lights, like, that kind of thing.

Jesse Ross

Yeah, okay. And ours are very similar. Again, I think most of that is actually due to the Southern kind of connection versus white, black, small family, large family, whatever, a couple of things that we do a little bit different. And so I didn't even get into the details right, but there are certain things that you might make that might be the difference. Right? Some people put the turkey in the oven. Some people like frying the turkey. Some grill the turkey.

Phil Wagner

But yeah, I got no grease from me. I can't do it. I've seen too many.

Jesse Ross

There it is. Some people put it on the grill. Some people smoke it. There's all those different things. There's what types of sides, right? Do you use sweet potatoes or candy yams? And those are two different things, technically. Do you put marshmallows on top or not? Like all of those different things, right? And so what I try to get people to recognize is we can celebrate the same thing but do it completely different ways. And both are right. And so giving people that kind of lens of, like, man and then the other end, right? So there are people that we know, and I love how you said it. Right? There are people who do not celebrate Christmas. There are people who might just celebrate and who also don't even like saying the word Thanksgiving, right? Because of the historical context, of course, we don't go. Hey, we're going to celebrate Thanksgiving. It's like, hey, that holiday, around the time that we do that, we're just going to use that as an opportunity to get together. I have a blended family, and so while I would love it to be, hey, we're going to just this day, we're cutting everything off. We're typically kind of spending half a day, pre-day, and you start to develop those traditions or rituals or routines based on where you are. And those are the things that I think, and I know, getting into one of the questions about the workplace. Right? There are routines that we have subconsciously that we don't even realize. Here's another thing, and I know we'll get to it, but I tell people I like to use my examples all the time. My wife is biracial. She's very white passing to white people, which I think is funny. And then, any person of color knows that. They might not know that she's black, but they know that she's a person of color. And so she loves watching movies. I just started watching movies when we got together because I just don't like I don't do a lot of TV, but when I watch TV for about the first two or three years for our marriage, she would always go like, oh, yeah, that's so and so. And I'd be like, who's that? Now, part of this is because I didn't watch a lot of TV, but growing up, I didn't even realize this until her and I were talking. My mom, it wasn't like she was intentional. But we never really watched white, predominantly white shows. So I'd never seen friends. I'd never seen Saved by the Bell, all these stuff. I watched the Mighty Ducks. Like, she let me do that. But all of our shows that we typically watch were focused around black culture. And this sounds terrible, but I use this to help it make sense when I'm doing these presentations. Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and there's one other guy. They all literally were the same person to me. I thought they were actually the same person. They don't look alike at all. Or Ben Affleck. That's who it was.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jesse Ross

And people go, what? I can't believe that. And I was like, but also, can you now believe why I would be offended if you thought I looked like Ice Cube?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jesse Ross

Or Michael Vick.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Jesse Ross

And now these guys I actually do think I have some resemblance to also. Right. But giving people the context, like, based on my experience and exposure or inexperience and inexposure. Right. I didn't know the difference, or I didn't identify with this type of culture or subculture. And so that's kind of a long way of answering. But I just think it's very practical to help people go into, like, oh, that does make sense. That's why I don't get into punk rock because I didn't grow up listening to it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I love that because what it does is it acknowledges a reality, and it is not a moral indictment. It is not good or bad.

Jesse Ross

Right.

Phil Wagner

Did or did not watch Friends.

Jesse Ross

Right.

Phil Wagner

Of which I have seen every single episode. A little embarrassing. But you know what? The pandemic was rough for all of us. So don't judge me. But that's not good or bad. It was just a reality. And so it's not good or bad that maybe you grew up in rural, small-town America where you weren't surrounded by folks of color, and now you have to just acknowledge that lack of experience and maybe put in a little extra work to factor that into your thinking. It doesn't make you a bad person. Right. It just means maybe you have different type of work to do here.

Jesse Ross

That's right.

Phil Wagner

I really like the foundation that sets for us to go forward in an action-oriented capacity.

Jesse Ross

Absolutely. Yeah. It's all about work, and I think it does cost all of us something. The only class that I retain for real around policy analysis was a guy named Dr. Samuel Myers at the University of Minnesota. He literally said in policy. There's always a trade-off. The question is, can you figure out what the trade-off is? Because it always going to cost you something. It's either going to cost you time, money, energy, not watching something or watching more of something, listening to something. And once I kind of brought that lens into it, I said, okay, like you said, not a moral indictment at all. No guilt, no shame. And there are people who do that, right? There are people who make money off doing that. But I really want to bring people and just say, now that you know where you are, what can we do now? And what you do might be completely different than what I do, but if we're all doing something that, at least we can have a greater appreciation for each other.

Phil Wagner

So within this context of moral indictments and feelings wrapped up in morality, I'm thinking, like, what if you go digging into your own cultural subcontext and come back with feelings of guilt? What if you're my last name is Wagner, right? I go back in my German heritage, thankfully. Thankfully, I have. And it's not as dark as what it could be. Right. But if you're a Caucasian person and you go deep digging here at the College of Women & Mary, we have a complicated history with slavery that we are not trying to brush under the rug. We own it. We acknowledge it. We are working to heal from those and make sure that we do the right thing in the next 330 years of our legacy. What if you go digging and you find stuff that's like, my cultural self context is not a flattering one? Or maybe even on the flip side, if you're a person of color and you dig back a few generations, and you look at the direct ties to slavery or something like that, what do you do then with those emotions when your cultural self context or cultural self-awareness is compromised by those really conflicting histories? How do you grapple with those?

Jesse Ross

Yeah, I think that's an amazing question. And if I'm honest, I don't have a well-thought-out answer because I think it is different for every person, right? And so one of the challenges, and this actually comes up a lot when I'm working with people one on one or working with larger organizations, let's acknowledge. So I like to ask questions, right? One of the questions that I typically will ask people is, what are some strategies or support systems that you can use to help you? So now that you found out this information, are you just going to stuff it, stop there, are you going to share it with someone? What are the strategies now that you come up to that piece of information that can help you? And help is a very generalized word, right? Help might be process. Help might be just listen. Help might be okay. Now I have questions I got to go ask other people so I can find out more. But if you don't have those strategies and support systems, I think it can take you into that dark place which we all know exists, and we all know that information can present challenges or opportunities. And so another question I will ask people is like, how do these findings actually produce or present challenges and opportunities based on where you are? Maybe now that I know, I'm going to kind of shift the rest of how I do things based on that information so I don't repeat that cycle in my family. It might be I don't really like that this is the cause and roots of where this institution that I've committed my financial and my moral time to, and I'm going to transfer. I think everyone should be able to decide that for themselves. Most of the time, though, we find out that information, and we do nothing with it. And so I try to get people like, you can do anything, I just don't want you to do nothing.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I agree. And organizations have to do this too. We've got a dear colleague at the University of San Diego, Sarah Federman, who looks at how organizations, really specifically the railway industry, has pastized to slavery specifically, and how they have worked to rebrand. And reidentify and I think even organizations have the work of looking to complicated pasts and being self-aware too. Earlier, you talked about all of us and the different access points that we have into this conversation and how that cultural self-context helps us sort of diversify our approach. But it seems to me that kind of complicates things and makes it more nuanced when in many ways as DEI practitioners, we're trying to simplify things, right? Like, aren't we trying to develop a common universal language around DEI? So is it possible if we're all so self-aware, we're all coming at this from different access points? Can we actually all get on the same page? Any thoughts there?

Jesse Ross

That's a really good question. So I think there's a trade-off always, right? If we're all on the same page? Well, one, how long will it take for us to get on the same page? That's a question I think about because we're all starting. We've all seen the images of the equity and what that looks like or equality. And people really get those confused because they're not the same thing. But the pictures of the three kids and the baseball field or the tree and the ladders and the boxes and a woman told me a really long time ago, the analogy that is always used is like if you give a person a fish, they can eat for a day. If you teach a person a fish, they can eat for a lifetime. And then she added, but if you change the rules of the pond, then you change a whole generation. And I kind of was like, wait, what do you mean? What she was really expanding upon is saying, hey, you might have an open face, and I'm not a fisherman, so please don't judge me.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, me neither. So I wouldn't know how to correct you.

Jesse Ross

There you go. You might have an open-face reel. Someone else might have a push-button reel, and then someone else might have just a straight-up pole, a rod. Right. But if we allow people to fish for as long as they need to so they can get everything that they need, then it doesn't matter what the tool is that they use or the method that they use. The goal is always for everyone to not go hungry. And I was like, oh, got it. So on the aspect of us getting on the same page, how long does it take? Or are there dangers in people getting onto the same page or not? I think if the goal is for all of us to be whole and healthy and make sure that people feel like they are included, then we should do that. And no matter how long it takes, no matter how much it cost us. But that's the flip side, is it's going to cost us? And some people are not okay with that. Some people don't want to take the time to get on the same page. Some people don't want to pay the money or lose the money that would go towards them or their insurance because we are just naturally selfish human beings. I try to tell people all the time we are wired for self-preservation. It's just the way that it comes out, which I don't actually feel bad about now that I know. But if somebody comes to your house and they're threatening your family, self-preservation says, let me make sure my family is okay. And that feeling and thought and behavior is the exact same way when somebody recognizes that historically, my family name or company or institution has marginalized people of color or indigenous folks or women or whatever the things is, and then they feel like, wait, I got to protect that because not everything about this thing is bad or was meant for bad.

Phil Wagner

Awesome. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about your community development work. Obviously, being in Minnesota, your state has been in many ways ground zero for huge moments of racial reckoning, particularly over the past ten years, but beyond that as well. So tell me about the work you're doing in your community and communities up there. Are you able to share on that at all?

Jesse Ross

Yeah, no, thank you. I don't actually get a chance to talk about it a lot, and I do a lot, and so I'll do this as simple as possible. So in context for people that are listening, I do live in the city of Minneapolis, not like, outside in the suburbs. So I am about ten minutes, maybe 15 minutes north of where George Floyd was murdered, and I'm about ten minutes south of where Daunte Wright was killed. And so my neighborhood, North Minneapolis, has historically been one of those marginalized communities that has always been historically predominantly African American, but also one of the most underserved, underresourced communities in the country. Or in the country in the state, for sure. And also, the same tag will get the reputation of the worst place to live in the state of Minnesota. Because of that narrative, because of that historical context, I have done my best. I bought a house literally two blocks from where I grew up, and I used to live in a whole other suburb, which is actually really nice, but I wanted to be able to live that out and change that narrative. So a lot of the work that I do is simply like, within probably five to ten minutes of my house, there's an elementary school that two years ago needed some coats. I was having a conversation with the parent liaison and there's literally, like, babies walking to school, coming to school without coats. And she just said, hey, do you know anybody that has about 20 coats? And I was just going to go buy them. And then I thought, well, how many kids are in the school? And she's like, well, there's about 300. Went to the middle school across the street. They needed about 60, and so I asked for 360 coats. Like, help me buy them. Minnesota winters are horrible. And man, we put out a plea on social media, and we got 2500 coats. I still actually have coats in a storage right now that I'm trying to get rid of. So that's an amazing thing. We did the very same thing with the school, and I've kind of like centralized into that school with back to school drive and a backpack drive. And then on the commercial real estate side, during the civil unrest, I used to organize these runs that were at like 04:00 in the morning. Don't judge me. You, listeners, don't judge me. And it was, like, the most peaceful time in the city, and there were a lot of folks that would come. Most of them are white folks. And we'll just kind of ask about the community. And I was kind of just storytelling about community I've lived and loved my entire life. And one person showed up and said she did commercial real estate development, and I was just like, oh, it's kind of interesting that nobody from the community owns our own property and community. And there are stats. Not very specific, but there are stats. About 95% of the property in my neighborhood is not owned. Actually, it's all owned by a white man, like one most of it is owned by one guy. And so I just said, I want to be able to change that. She hired me to do some work with a group of commercial real estate developers, and in that process, she was like, hey, we're going to buy this building, but I really feel like somebody black or brown from the community should own it. And do you want to own a building? And I wasn't ready. I was like, no. But for the last year and a half, she has taught me commercial real estate. She taught me how to run the numbers, how to look at things, and we've taught each other. She talks about this all the time. It doesn't take a rocket science to learn commercial real estate actually. I didn't believe that until I got into it. What is difficult is the way that the system is set up, and people have heard of redlining. And so I wanted to be able to basically say, I want to own a building in my community and create a space for other folks like me, or people that want to rent from someone who looks like them or comes where they come from. I want to be able to do that, and her and a host of people have been helping me do that. And so it's a 68,000 square foot commercial real estate property, $5.5 million, and we're just moving along, and it's so exciting. It's so stressful and so amazing all at the same time.

Phil Wagner

That's fantastic. Congratulations.

Jesse Ross

Thank you.

Phil Wagner

Just a magnificent accomplishment. Jesse, it's such a privilege to speak to you. We have had a great conversation on cultural self-awareness. Before we go, tell us what's next for you. Like, you've got this property, you're doing the work, you're doing community engagement work, you continue to consult and coach. What's next for you?

Jesse Ross

Yeah, so after we get the building, there's a community gathering space inside the building that I'm going to kind of revitalize and turn into just a space for people to use, right? Birthday parties, quinceaneras, wedding receptions, kind of all over so that people can get into the space and, of course, inviting people into the space. And honestly, I love doing these. I love speaking, so that's never going to change, but now I have more kind of context and ammunition around the DEI conversation. So when companies say, what can we do? When I come and ask them questions. Now, I also have a vehicle that they can contribute to and actually build proximity in as well.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, put your money where your mouth is.

Jesse Ross

Exactly and come. Target. We're headquarters for most of the Fortune 500 companies, but they don't have relationships in those underserved or misunderpresented groups. And so I'm like, no, come on by. Be present, and let's build relationships with the folks that you say you care about.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Such a wonderful conversation. Jesse Ross, my friend, thank you so much for joining us today. It's been a true pleasure.

Jesse Ross

Thank you. Thank you.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Katherine Barko-Alva
Katherine Barko-AlvaEpisode 40: March 27, 2023
Linguistic Diversity

Katherine Barko-Alva

Episode 40: March 27, 2023

Linguistic Diversity

Our guest today is Dr. Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor and Director of the ESL bilingual education program at the William & Mary School of Education. As a bilingual scholar herself, her research agenda is rooted in classroom practices and explores how dual-language bilingual education educators make sense of language in culturally and linguistically diver K-12 content.

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Katherine Barko-Alva: Linguistic Diversity TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • The intersection between the school system and families in relation to multi-lingual learning
  • What is the role of parents and the school system when providing information on the DEI landscape
  • Why teachers don't have time to establish authentic relationships with their students' families
  • How should we think about community in the broader realm of DEI work
  • How best to reconcile competing notions of community
  • What are some "fossilized practices" within the educational system and how to address them
  • What are the current realities of inequity in the educational system
Transcript

Katherine Barko-Alva

When you really love something, then you are vulnerable, then you're compassionate, then you're open.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome listeners to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our approach to DEI in the world of work. I'm joined today by my friend and my colleague, Dr. Katherine Barko-Alba, who's an assistant professor and the director of the ESL Bilingual Education Program here at the William & Mary School of Education. As a bilingual scholar herself, her research agenda is rooted in classroom practices and explores how dual language bilingual education educators make sense of language in culturally and linguistically diverse k through twelve contexts. She's a passionate DEI advocate. She's actively involved at our university, in our community, across the state, in the nation, and she's just a rock star in the purest sense of the word. So it's a true honor to welcome my friend, my colleague.

Phil Wagner

Thank you for joining us today. So excited to chat with you here.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Muchisimas gracias, Phil. It's such an honor to join you today and have this conversation that. I think creating spaces where we can just figure out how this works in real life it's so crucial and significant, too. Yeah, I mean, today is my grandmother's birthday.

Phil Wagner

Happy birthday, Grandma.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Yes.

Phil Wagner

Happy birthday.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Excited to be doing it. En el día de mi abuela. So on the day of my grandmother.

Phil Wagner

Great shout out there. Look, you do so much, and I've tried to give a little bit of an appropriate bio, but why don't you, in your own words, tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are and what you do, what you study?

Katherine Barko-Alva

Well, let's see. So it sounds like a lot. I often say that, but it's all rooted in community and classroom work. I'm a teacher and I love writing, and I love researching, but my heart is in the classroom. I was an English learner, emerging bilingual multilingual learner. When my family and my parents, my sister, and I decided to move to the States, it was really difficult. Right. We had the privilege that we came in with green cards. We won the green card lottery. We don't know how that happened. I mean, it's a long story. We don't have the entire time. To make story short, we didn't even put for our paperwork. I think my godfather did it just to see.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Katherine Barko-Alva

And to get it in the family. And then my mom's name got picked, but because of my mom was married to my dad, all of us got it. And I just wanted to put that out there because I work with populations who have to suffer through the whole immigration process, and it's not easy. And even though my family and I came with a green card, which facilitated so many things, it was still very difficult in terms of how to understand a school, the positionality of a school, how to navigate school. I came in when I was 15 years old. I spoke a little bit of English, but I also took French in high school. But while my first language was high in terms of language proficiency, I didn't have, quote-unquote, the English. And we're going to talk about that to take my SATs, ACT, the SSI. I remember the first book I was given was The Scarlet Letter. And I'm like, what am I going to do? I'm so used to making good grades. And I'm telling you this little story so that just to locate and emphasize how difficult it is for an immigrant family, for a multilingual family, to make sense of their space in school and how much support they need, but at the same time, how many resources our families bring to the table.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Katherine Barko-Alva

And that we're not capitalizing. So that's the work that I do. I try to make sense of language in classrooms and fantastic multilingual educators and how they perceive their roles as language and content area teachers in bilingual classrooms. Also, how we teach preservice teachers, how we teach in-service teachers, as well as how to bring our families into the fold. Right. How to break those barriers so that we're not just sitting around expecting our families to come into the school, but us reaching out and going into the communities and understand that resources our families bring to the curriculum.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I appreciate that you lead with that story from your own family. So we know that identities are groomed and developed in family systems and in educational systems, but I think we often just sort of situate those as two different silos. And in your work, you're kind of the perfect person to speak to this because your book looks specifically at equity in school and parent partnerships. So can you share a little bit more about how those systems interact in this space? I know there's a heavy DEI connection there, but can you speak to some of that work, perhaps?

Katherine Barko-Alva

It is, and this is, a work of love that it was created with my two fantastic colleagues, Dr. Socorro Herrera from Kansas State University and Dr. Lisa Porter from JMU. Lisa is a sociologist, Socorro educator, and also mentor and think about DEI representation. She was the first Latina professor that I met long after I graduated from my Ph.D. program. Well, I had a fantastic advisor and advisor and fantastic professors. I was so excited to meet another Latina Latina faculty member and the mentorship and the love. And when I say love is love because it's looking at our histories as K Twelve teachers, as members in family units, and the positionality of it and experiences in schools with families, with teachers, with students, and putting that together in this notion of authentic cariño from Venezuela Bartolomé, and then radical kinship.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Gregory Boyd and thinking about working from the margins, right? The work of Bell Hooks and also Paulo Freire, and putting that together in vignettes, in theoretical frameworks to kind of uncover those fossilized practices that we have experienced in a school, break those barriers down, and again, hoping that our families become the center of our curriculum. So it's a transformative work in the sense of its not just teachers dictating what our students are learning, but it's a stepping back, being very humble, learning who our families are, learning who our students are, which biography during instruction, and let that dictate how we teach. How wonderful.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So I love that you nod to our friends Paulo and Bell, right? I mean, we're talking about parent and school interactions, and we look to Bell Hook's, Feminism is for Everybody, or Paulo Freire's, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Those very concepts.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Right. Like, we always go with Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Pedagogy of hope, pedagogy of love, and his open concientizaciónes is, like, what guide us and what should guide us.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I think so often we think about the context of parent-school relations, sort of based on the narrative we see playing out in the media. Here in Virginia, we know that our last election for governor was very heavily impacted by the discourse of parental involvement in schooling. And I'm curious how your work, your insights, your research might help us better understand that relationship and the role that each of those systems play in developing well-rounded children, students, citizens.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Yes. So one of the things that comes to mind, and it's also informed by the work of Freire and all the greats, right? Is this notion of authentic reflection on both sides and authentic listening, I think, from a very humble place, being a teacher for so long and now in higher ed, we have forgotten that we need to listen to each other. There is no connection. Right. One of the items that I often reflect is the fact that we have put so much emphasis on the standardized testing, and teachers are up to here, and I know we're in a podcast, but up to your neck on demands, scores, meetings, paperwork, and then they don't have time to establish authentic relationships.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Families, there is no communication on who the teacher are, their positionalities, or where the families are coming from. So when there isn't that conversation, when there isn't trust, what's going to happen? You're going to have to see a rupture.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Right. And so I think looking at the literature and looking how we have envisioning, how we have shaped family engagement up to this point, and there are amazing people doing similar work is one of the main concerns, is that we're not talking to each other, meaning schools and families and their community. Right. We don't trust each other. There is huge lack of trust and just the lack of knowledge of what every single pillar is doing because you cannot teach the child if you don't have the support of the teacher. You don't know where the community is from. Then you don't understand what the family is coming from.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that. Trust. Yeah. This is about trust and active listening and creating space to maybe have uncomfortable conversations, but with some guardrails, may be right that we're all in this together, which is for the betterment of child.

Katherine Barko-Alva

It's not easy. Right. So these trainings they need to happen at the teacher preparation program, how do we get our preservice teachers to that point where they feel comfortable to engage with conversations with their families and then during in-services? So when they are in the classroom, they're working at their school level, the professional development of that nature is not happening. So we're asking a lot from teachers, we're asking a lot from parents, we're asking a lot from students, and we're not providing any structures of support. And I feel as though we're operating from a position of fear rather than authentic love. Because when you really love something, then you are vulnerable, then you're compassionate, then you're open to have those discussions.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's good.

Katherine Barko-Alva

And that's what we're missing.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. A lot of your work to that theme speaks of the importance of community. So can you offer any insights on how we should think about the importance of community just in the broader realm of DEI work? Right. Community informs so much of what you do. Any insights on community in this broader context?

Katherine Barko-Alva

Community is everything. We can't do the I work if we don't step back from a very humble, right this, notion of cultural humility from Tervalon and Garcia. If we're not listening to what the community has to say if we're not learning from the community. Right. Sometimes we have these overarching ideas of how DEI should look like in our structures, how it should look like in the classroom, how it should look like in general. But it's going to change, and it's going to vary according to the context. And the context is shaped and is born in the community with the good and the bad. Right. We're not romanticizing the idea of community, but that's what is born. That's what it emerges and as researchers and teachers, and practitioners. I think that's where we need to start. If we're thinking about curriculum, we shouldn't be in a room sitting right next to seven people who think like us and then hoping that that curriculum is going to teach this other sector of the population that sometimes we don't know anything about.

Phil Wagner

What do you do when two communities are in conflict with each other? Right. You might have a dominant community or an underrepresented or a stoically exploited community, and the values or the goals or what they're reaching for seem to be in conflict with each other. How do you reconcile competing notions of community?

Katherine Barko-Alva

Oh, my goodness. If I had the answer to that.

Phil Wagner

I know, right?

Katherine Barko-Alva

Right, if we had the answer to that but think about it. And I'm just going to share a little bit of my background. I was raised Catholic, but from a very liberal liberation theology, had a lot of connections with Jesuits, Franciscans, and amazing nuns, and plus my grandmother, who was the strongest woman, two grandmothers, but one of them was the strongest woman I've ever met. So a lot of my work is informed by that. And in this notion of dignity, we can have different perspectives, we can have different sets of knowledge, but it all boils down to the fact that I, Katherine, understand that you, Phil, you're a human being, and you have dignity, you're ascension being, and that brings dignity to your universe, right? So when I engage in conversation with you, that's my starting point. That's my initiation point. So I can't be mad, I can't attack you, I can't go after you because your dignity brings me compassion, brings me patience, and brings me vulnerability. Does that make sense?

Phil Wagner

It so does. And we've talked about it on this podcast before. I go back to dignity every single time. That's the sort of foundation for my own approach to DEI work. Donna Hicks work is just like wonderfully informative to me here. We even have another episode in season two about dignity as well. So no, I love that answer. Hard to do in practice, but as a North Star, really cannot serve you wrong. When you lead with dignity, you see the world through a completely different lens.

Katherine Barko-Alva

You know what? We may messed up like first times that we try to do it, and we try that approach. It's going to be difficult, but it does not mean that we shouldn't try, because what's the alternative? What is going on right now that we cannot even sit in a room and talk to each other? And also, once we have those parameters, we have to understand the historical backgrounds of populations which has been and are currently excluded. Right.

Phil Wagner

I want to look at some of the other facets of your work. One of the things that I love that you focus on are what you call fossilized practices in the educational system that devalue histories or contributions and, in some cases, just devalue people from historically underrepresented or minoritized backgrounds. Can you share on some of those fossilized practices and then your insights as a researcher on how we can better address them?

Katherine Barko-Alva

To the practice-level things that schools do? Right. And once again, it's not just Lisa, Socorro, and I talking about this. There's fantastic people doing this type of work too, but little things. It all comes back to the ground level. Daughter father dances, for instance, or I know they have donuts with dad, right? Things like that that are basically excluding families who look different, who have different structures. I often ask, look around your PTA and then look at your student population. What voices are being represented? What voices are being left out? Look at your curriculum. And right now in Virginia, this is very difficult to my preservice teachers, in-service teachers, and I'm going to keep saying it. Look at your classroom library. What stories is that library telling? What stories is it not telling? And those are the fossilized practices of that notion. And I think you've heard it before. We've always done it this way. Right? We've always had the parent-teacher night, which is probably 06:00, without thinking that parents may have two jobs, without thinking that parents may not speak the language of the dominant culture. Without thinking that parents may not have transportation, without thinking that our children may not live with their parents. Could be unaccompanied minors that are here with uncle, aunt, or maybe their older siblings. Right? And granted, I'm not saying that there is this evil system that is operating like this to keep people out because I know how overworked the system is in K-12, and teachers are doing their best with very little resources. But what if we shift? What if we understand that that hasn't worked? And now transformation, talking about Freire and critical pedagogy transformation, needs to happen. And breaking those fossilized practices and, instead of expecting the community to come into the school, letting the school go into the community and live in community.

Phil Wagner

I really appreciate that framing, because what you do is you strike a balance and you don't overly romanticize what that educational system is there to do, but you really reveal the stakes. I think of, again, so much of our identity is developed in those systems and in those places. You look at inequity in the educational system and we know that the inequities that we deserve I'm sorry, the inequities that we observe there we go, in that space, those have felt consequences.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Inequities that we allow, too. Right?

Phil Wagner

Allow, yeah, that's good.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Yeah, without even thinking of it like we see it, it's there, and then we don't do anything to it. So I often say reflection, reflection, and then action, action, and action.

Phil Wagner

So if you're like me and you have two kids in the public school system, and it looks like everybody's being treated equally, you might think, I mean, haven't we addressed this? We're past inequities. There's lunch programs, breakfast programs. Can you speak as a researcher in this space on some of the current realities of inequity in the educational system and maybe why that's a current issue that we should really be or a pressing issue that we should really be really laser-focused on?

Katherine Barko-Alva

So going back to your examples of lunch programs, right? Because that's one of the things that I would do for my students. I would fill out that form if you don't have access to language. And access to language is an issue of linguistic equity and inclusion. Right. Parents are not able to fill out that form. Just right there and then having somebody on staff and because my work is in multilingualism, having somebody on the staff who can sit with the parent and say, this is how we're going to do it, and this is how you fill it out, like teaching. That is a game changer. Right. And if we know that this particular form is no longer working or meeting the needs of our families, why do we keep it? And sometimes people are going to be, oh, but we have it translated in five or six different languages. A lot of our parents have other types of literacy, not necessarily the literacy that is going to be represented in that form.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Right, I'm just giving you a very good example of some of the things that we see in the classroom. The fact that and my husband has a Ph.D. in science education, too, and he used to work in a Florida school, public school, and we would always talked about, you just have to drive, say, 4 miles, and you see a completely different infrastructure, access to books, lab material for public education. And this is the work of Kozol, right? Kozol talks about this from one group of students who look a very particular way who sound a very particular way as opposed to the other group of students. So I truly believe in public education. I'm a product of public education back in Peru and then here in the United States, but not in that level. To that level, not everybody's being treated in equitable ways.

Phil Wagner

And it seems to me, then, that also puts an undue amount of emotional labor or extra labor on bilingual educators. Right. I mean, so you're sitting there in addition to your day-to-day duties, then working with parents. That definitely is then a labor of love. It's above and beyond the expected sort of line of duty. Right.

Katherine Barko-Alva

And up until now, I often joke around like everybody in the community has my phone, and I get phone calls from parents. Right. I'm a professor at William & Mary, but I get phone calls from parents about bus schedules or getting into programs, and I often tell them like I may not have the answers because I'm not directly in the school system, but I don't know. I know the person that I can reach out. Right. And I can be a language bridge, but it comes back to my family. Somebody did that for them.

Phil Wagner

Oh, wow. Yeah.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Because I was basically told in a very kind way that I was never going to be able to go to college or university because I didn't speak English and that they couldn't help me. Right. And the entire reason for my parents to come to the States was so that my sister and I would be safe, would be alive, and we could go on to college. That was it. And so I remember those days. I lived those days. And every time I encounter our communities, I work from that perspective, right, which is very powerful because those are the voices, those are the narratives of thousands and thousands of people who come to this country just to work and just like my parents did.

Phil Wagner

I love that. I love that. Starting and ending with your story here, I think, is just so profound. It just keeps the main thing, the main thing. I have one final question for you, and it's pie in the sky. It's heady. One of the things I really appreciate about this podcast is it's a vehicle to just share different perspectives with our listeners, many leaders within organizations, but just differing perspectives. You are a researcher who has done research on a very specific aspect of inclusion and community. And I'm wondering if you can just provide any insight from your lens, from your perspective, insights to our listeners on how they can truly make the world and the world of work a more just, equitable, and inclusive place for all.

Katherine Barko-Alva

And I think I've touched upon with our conversation a little bit of those themes throughout. Right? But I truly believe there is a lack of conversation and lack of communication between policymakers, researchers, and then practitioners, at least in K-12 settings, or the policy is not translating in the way that it's supposed to be back to the classroom. So once again, if we were to operate from a space of vulnerability and humbleness, understanding that we don't have all the answers and that those conversations have to be ongoing, even when policy has been implemented, we have to go back and evaluate to see if it makes sense or not and if it's making sense for the populations that those policies are meant to serve. Right? We often don't do that and then seek those answers through collaboration in classrooms. And when I give talks, I talk about the three big C's, right? Collaboration, communication, and compassion. And that should guide our work because that's going to lead to those answers. Identify and create spaces where we know and we are able to say these are the voices that are being silent and not only how to include them but how to highlight those voices. Because for the longest time, those narratives have been excluded. Listening to others con el cuerpo entero, which means with your entire body, because what do we do when we engage in conversation? And this is from my sociolinguistic background. My students are like, well, we're often thinking about what we're going to say, which means that we're not really listening to our partner, right? So I often tell them if you're going to be a language teacher, you have to listen with your entire body. We have four language skills listening, reading, writing, and speaking. The ones that in the classroom we often don't practice is the output, which is the speaking part, and then the listening component.

Phil Wagner

For sure.

Katherine Barko-Alva

You have to train your ear. Right. But in my mind, when I say escuchar con el cuerpo entero or listening con el cuerpo entero is your entire soul comes into those conversations. And I'm not going to get tired of doing this. Everything that we do, we have to do it from a point of hope and compassion. And this is taking Friere's work and not hope that it feels like, oh, qué lindo, like go inside. No, but hope, understanding that there are several things that we don't know and how are we going to get to the next level where we learn those things and we can keep moving forward. Right. And we can take reflection. So it's this idea of concientización or concientization, too.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I love that. Bringing your whole soul into everything that you do. I look at you, and I see that's what you do. You bring your whole soul into everything that you do, every conversation. I love it. I really appreciate the soul behind what you do and the fact that you've given up your time to speak with us today. Katherine, my friend, thank you for a great conversation and for sharing more about your work. Always a privilege to speak to you, but particularly here. Thank you so much.

Katherine Barko-Alva

Gracias. You all have a good, good afternoon.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Devon Peterika
Devon PeterikaEpisode 39: March 13, 2023
No, You Can't Touch My Hair

Devon Peterika

Episode 39: March 13, 2023

No, You Can't Touch My Hair

Our guest today is Devon Peterika, a dynamic and accomplished HR professional with over 20 years of work in HR and the DEI leadership space. Devon has a multi-faceted background in HR in a variety of institutions of higher education, and she currently serves as the Diversity and Inclusion leader in the oil and gas industry. What we love most about Devon's work is that she advances DEI work through very intention and specific organizational and HR strategies.

Podcast (audio)

Devon Peterika: No, You Can't Touch My Hair TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Devon found her way into DEI work
  • How standards of professionalism might disenfranchise historically underrepresented workers
  • What happens when one does not go to work as their authentic self
  • What the role of hair is as an identity element
  • How the Crown Act protects workers
  • The societal hypocrisies between bald men and bald women
  • How the Oscars Slap elevated the awareness of alopecia
  • The cost of maintaining "professional" hair for African American women
  • Why it's a dignity violation to touch someone's hair
  • Why professionalism codes are DEI matters
Transcript

Devon Peterika

I remember, and probably about last month, someone came up to me and said, can I just rub your head? I said no.

Phil Wagner

No.

Devon Peterika

Why is that even something that you want to do? Like, that's just freaky, like, ugh.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real human lived experiences that help us shape and define effective DEI leadership. I'm joined today by Devon Peterika, who is a dynamic and accomplished HR professional with over 20 years of work in HR and leadership in the DEI space. Devon has a multifaceted background in HR at a variety of institutions of higher ed, and she currently serves as a diversity and inclusion leader in the oil and gas industry. What I love most about Devon's work is that she advances DEI work through very intentional and very specific organizational and HR strategies. But Devon also has a great personal perspective on DEI, which I know we'll talk a little bit about today. I'm so excited to host her here.

Phil Wagner

Devon, my friend, thank you for joining us. I'm sure that I've botched your background in some way. Can you tell our listeners a little bit more about who you are, what you do, and maybe a little bit about how you've found your way into DE&I work?

Devon Peterika

Absolutely. It's funny because when you hear your background ran off, you're like, is that me?

Phil Wagner

That's you. That's you.

Devon Peterika

So I actually fell accidentally into human resources many moons ago because my bachelor is in arts administration, and I have a minor in dance. And then I realized, yo, this don't pay the bills.

Phil Wagner

Been there.

Devon Peterika

And unless you're in New York or California, but guess what? The cost of living there. I'm like, oh, my. So I shifted my career over into HR leadership. I got my masters in HR leadership and the roles that I kept getting kept expanding. So, like regional territory, like Southport, it started, then it was like up the coast and the full east coast, and then multi countries and blah, blah, blah. I've really had favor in this space. I guess you can say. And then from there, when I had my little guy, he'll be seven in a couple of weeks, I moved back to Kentucky to be close to family. And in Kentucky, there's no big organization, primarily higher education. And so that's really when I kind of got my feet wet in the higher ed space. And there I was really advancing into this for disciplines in human resource. I was leading the office at this particular institution, and it was just kind of exhausting, almost because with my personality, I feel like everyone was like, oh, Devin, you can manage this employee relations. I'm like, yo, that's not my job. But it was like, you can disarm people so easily. Yeah, that's great, but it's exhausting. I really want to finesse in other areas. And I was trying to find a space that I was more proactive than reactive. And so I got a job at it was actually Maria College, and I saw a position for Title Nine, and it was a D&I position. I was like. I think I like it. And so I didn't even know anything about it. Started doing research on it, and I applied. Didn't get the job. However, in the midst of that, I was actually someone reached out to me for a Frontier Nursing University, where I was able to be the Assistant Director as the diversity, equity, and inclusion role there. And it's funny because the HR experience really fed into the needs that I needed for the D&I space because kind of the HR kind of facilitates some of the movements around the cultural awareness, cultural adjustments, and all that great and all changes. And, long story short, I'm big on development. I don't believe that D&I could be implemented based on lived experience only. So I got my certification as a diversity professional. And then another organization was like, hey, I see you. And they tapped me on the shoulder, and I accepted the role. And then, I had the opportunity to support several countries, US, Canada, and Latin America. Love what I do, love the space. And I truly feel like I am working in the purpose and the calling for my personal life.

Phil Wagner

I love so much of that. And you speak to attention that I think is so difficult in the DEI space, which is lived experience matters. It informs our perspective. It shapes the lens, but it alone is not enough to drive change. And so I love how you're able to speak to that. And I think it's perfect for where we're planning to go today. So what I want to talk about is our sense and sensibilities surrounding professionalism and professionalism standards in the world of work. And I think, as an HR professional, you particularly are in a perfect position to help us contextualize that conversation. So I'm wondering, can we unpack that term just a little bit today and maybe dismantle perhaps some of the ways in which our standards of professionalism might disenfranchise historically underrepresented or minoritized workers or applicants? So let's unpack this professionalism idea. Tell me from an HR perspective who's DEI-minded how you grapple with that term.

Devon Peterika

I struggled with the term personally because one of the things that I've learned in HR is that I flourish in the jobs that I do. I do my job well. But I had so many people tell me, across the path of my life and my career path, that I need to suppress my personality or do this. And I have fully embraced. I am an extrovert with an extra dose.

Phil Wagner

Same good company.

Devon Peterika

And I'm just like, what I'm not going to do is minimize who I am to make someone else feel comfortable. And I've always said I am not the traditional HR person, and when I even go into interviews now, I'm just like, I'm not so know what you're getting upfront. But I feel like the term professionalism is a coined phrase to keep people in this comfortable box for others that manage the world in which we live, which are unfortunately white males and females. And it's not to say anything mean or nasty about it, but it's just the fact that they are usually the ones primarily in leadership. And so it's like to make them feel, oh, this is how you're supposed to speak, this is nah, that's not me. And if you want a diverse perspective or people to be their authentic self, you need to allow them to be that. And research actually shows that if you do not come to work as your authentic self, you actually minimize your creativity. You create your flow of work, your productivity. And it's like, so why not allow people to be their authentic self? And I'm not saying let people come in like everything's hanging out and showing and tell hanging out. I'm not saying that. I'm saying allow people to express themselves the way they do, and you figure out and try to make it palatable for you.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

How about you adjust for them?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, somebody once told me that if you think about the box is built for white people, and if you look at how a box is drawn, it's often a big white square with black lines at the margins. And I'm always like, oh yeah, I think that's profound. And so our very ideas of professionalism, I think in that sense, the box is sort of built-in those very Eurocentric or thin-centric ways that are, I think, problematic. One of the things that I was really hoping we might get into today because I know this is something you have spoken to pretty extensively is on the conversation of hair. And it's not a conversation we've had in-depth on this podcast, but I teach a variety of courses in DEI leadership in organizations, and this comes up pretty significantly, and I'm really kind of doubly removed from this conversation. I'm a white guy, and I am as bald as you can imagine. But the discourse on natural hair particularly has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. The Crown Act really helped ensure a discrimination-free environment based on natural hair. Can you speak to the role of hair as an HR professional, as an identity element, and how it might be something that we should better factor into our diversity work?

Devon Peterika

Well, the funny thing is that people, this is like a touchy topic to me again, personal experience, because, well, your listeners don't know, but I am bald. I have alopecia, and I decided to go ahead and shave my hair completely bald just because I was tired of hiding the baldness. And it was almost bringing up insecurities because I was always weird is the space showing or whatever. And people have a tendency to say you should wear your hair like this or wear hair, having no idea the cost that it takes to maintain that, knowing what it does to the damage of your own hair, and just so many dynamics to satisfy you. Why? And it's like, my thing is, what does hair have to do with the productivity of my work?

Phil Wagner

Right.

Devon Peterika

And the thing that and I love the crown act so much, and it's unfortunate that we even have to have something like that to say, hey, people need to be able to rock their hair the way they desire, because some even applies to cultural differences, and people don't even take that into consideration. My son is half Samoan, so they identify him as afakasi because he's half Samoan and half African American. I allow his hair to grow long because, in their culture, I believe it's age 15 is the time that they kind of cut it off and allow it to grow. Well, a lot of people like, oh, he looks like a girl. Why don't you cut it off? Why don't you allow people to connect with their culture the way of this? When we came over here from slavery and all that? We were so disconnected from our culture on so many different levels. It's like, let us reconnect and be great.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

And that's the frustrating piece for me. But when it comes to hair in the workplace, I feel like it's another mechanism for people to just control the way you speak, the way you talk, the way you look, and all these aspects, it's like, stop. And it wears me down when people try to touch your hair because they're so curious. I'm not a snippet. I'm not a dog.

Phil Wagner

I want to talk about all there's, like, 17 things you just brought up, and I'm like, I want to talk about all of these. So I'm going to talk about touching. I want to talk about cost of hair treatments. I want to talk about natural hair, which we kind of just did. And if you're willing, I want to talk about alopecia. I mean, this is kind of like a significant cultural time to talk about these things. We're just a few months out from Will and Jada and Chris, and that has shaped, I think, a lot of white discourse on alopecia. Let's be honest. Not a lot of white folks sort of think about alopecia in their day-to-day lives particularly. So let's start there. You have such an impactful story. You've shared that story openly on Instagram, and it's one of such empowerment and dignity, and I love it. So give me a perspective on alopecia and maybe the cultural moment your willing to talk about and contextualize alopecia as part of DEI work.

Devon Peterika

Well, alopecia there is three main types of alopecia. Alopecia, I can't pronounce it. A-R-E-A-T-A I want to say it's like areata. And that's the form that I have, which are bald patches. Then there's alopecia totalis, which is like above your head, there's no hair. So maybe your eyebrows, your eyelashes. And then alopecia universalis, which is you ain't got no hair nowhere. There's three different types when it comes to alopecia, especially with the treatment. Sometimes, it can be exhausting. It could be, I don't want to say degrading because I've had them take pieces of my head out trying to examine it. I've had steroid shots in my head, and it's like it's exhausting. And it's like to fit the mold of who?

Phil Wagner

Right.

Devon Peterika

Who am I trying to do this for? And Phil, if you knew how much my hair bill was, my husband's going to be happy I'm bald now when I get married. But alopecia is just let me tell you a quick story. I was at this one particular organization. I won't name them. And it was actually the time that I decided I'm going to shave it all off. Like I'm tired. I'm over it. And for me, it was so freeing.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

But what's so funny was about so many other people. So from a personal aspect, I had so many people in my DMs and on Facebook when I posted my first picture asked me if I was a lesbian now. I didn't know my hair had to do with my sexuality, and asked me if I am having a nervous breakdown and I'm not Britney Spears having a moment. They were asking me if I had cancer. It was, so are you serious? So people's perspective just went out the window.

Phil Wagner

So limiting. It's a haircut. It's a hairstyle. Wow.

Devon Peterika

It had to be a root cause to whatever you're going through.

Phil Wagner

It had to make sense in their minds.

Devon Peterika

Exactly. Without asking. That was the thing that was challenging for me. And in the workplace, my supervisor at the time said she knew I was trying to progress just in general in this space. And she said people are likely not to take you seriously because you decided to shave your head.

Phil Wagner

No kidding.

Devon Peterika

Not knowing the financial, the emotional toll that I had gone through to get to this place. Are you serious?

Phil Wagner

And again, I'm a bald white guy navigating the world. I got to tell you. Nobody's ever talked about my hair being a barrier to effective leadership or change management. So, I mean, there's multiple hypocrisies, and just ironies slow baked into that sentiment.

Devon Peterika

Yeah. So I like Criminal Minds, and the reason I like Criminal Minds because I want to know the why behind the why, but nobody wants to take the time to understand, and I believe that the true issue in our world today and this is the need for D&I is because there needs to be cultural awareness and cultural competency. But in order to do that, I believe relationship is needed.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

I'm not saying you got to be best friends, but I need to have some level of relationship or vulnerability to say, I don't know anything about this space. Can you tell me a little bit about it? Now, I'm not saying it's my role to educate you and bear the burden for you, but at least to shine some light or some direction for you to get guidance on your own. But people don't want to do that.

Phil Wagner

And it's a call for true and authentic relational development because it's not, hey, let's get into relationships so you can be my teacher mentor on black hair issues. Right? It's, hey, let's come into community together because I think you're a great person. I think we share a values framework. And guess what? The more we go to lunch, the more we talk, the more we have casual conversations, the more we become more vulnerable and deepen relational development. Peel back the layers of the onion. The more I'm just going to naturally learn through sort of osmosis, through just sort of like, I care about what's happening in your life. This is meaningful to you. You're not teaching me anything. We've just got community, and through community comes greater understandings. I think that's a profound recipe for how to do that in a healthy way with not exploiting the knowledge or lived experiences of other folks.

Devon Peterika

Yes, absolutely. I totally agree.

Phil Wagner

So let's talk about Will, Chris, and Jada. I mean, you talk about raising awareness. I don't know that anything has raised awareness for alopecia or the cause of alopecia or just recognition that this is a thing that exists in a very impactful and high-profile way. Did that help? Did that hurt? Do you not want to comment? I know you're not a social.

Devon Peterika

No, you know, I got comments today.

Phil Wagner

All right.

Devon Peterika

I'm on your podcast. I'm ready to rock it out. There's a challenging piece with the Will and Jada situation, and then I'll talk about how I feel like it impacts them. The thing that pisses me off so bad. Yes, I said, pisses off. Me off.

Phil Wagner

No limits here. You know that.

Devon Peterika

Is the fact that you heard more people talk about violence when it came to Will getting up and slapping Chris, and I'm not saying it's right, wrong, or indifferent, but from an ethnic background, I feel like a lot of the black people were like, yo, this could have happened at a barbecue. You talk about somebody's people, hey, you're going to get smacked. So we were like, oh, dang, that happened in public, in front of company. But I felt like our white counterparts were like, oh, my God, the violence. But where was you alls asses at with all this social injustice? When all these black boys were getting shot by police? Where were you all at when this little boy crossed state lines with a gun that he ordered online, and then where was you all talking about the violence then? And then they tried and then suspended Will from the award. Again, where I just feel like there's such hypocrisy. You want to talk out when it's convenient for you.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, there's so much, and I don't feel qualified to talk about every aspect because it's not my space. But I think there's so much that we can learn from that interaction. And one of the poignant notes to me is the erasure of Jada in that conversation, too, of how most impacted by that dignity violation and the person least talked about. It came down to the act of violence, not so much even just, oh, this is playing out at her expense in front of a very public audience.

Devon Peterika

One of the things that when it came to the situation because someone asked me was like, how do you feel about it? And I was like, Well, alopecia is very sensitive for everybody. And again, everyone's unique difference because I embraced it. And now, granted, I started developing alopecia when I was pregnant with my daughter, and Destiny is now 21. She's going to be mad because I told her age, but literally, it took me almost 18 years to finally say, you know what? And I love this look now, you know what I'm saying? I feel bold. I feel courageous. I feel like I feel sexy, you know, the whole nine. But everybody is not in that place, and we must honor and respect where they are at in that journey.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

Even though Jada wasn't, because everybody was like, oh, it's no big deal, and whatever. And I don't know how Jada feels about it. I don't know because I don't know Jada. I would love to meet her one day.

Phil Wagner

You and me both. Yeah. But I think that's an important point, too, is to not assume that these experiences are monolithic. You've spoken to some of the issues that you have faced in sort of coming out with alopecia, for lack of a better term. Right? Not everyone is in a place where they are resilient enough or capable to do that. So I think this is about opening up space for people to be their full, authentic self, even if it doesn't make sense to how you think about how authentic self should play out. It's maybe not our business to do. With alopecia, let's go back to the natural hair conversation because I think this is something that I work with grad students. I work with MBA students and Masters of Accounting students, and undergraduate students. And particularly, my female black students have an experience that they often share with so many others in the class that never think about it, which is just the cost. I mean, the profound economic impact to their paycheck that it takes to align to professional ideas of hair in the workplace. Can you enlighten our listeners on

Devon Peterika

Absolutely.

Phil Wagner

is it really that costly, Devon?

Devon Peterika

Oh, it's expensive.

Phil Wagner

Talk to us about it.

Devon Peterika

Like I told you, my husband, my new husband, when I get married again, will be happy. So for me, I did hair weaves, and this was before and after alopecia. My hair could cost anywhere between $600, and this was hair and installation, so it could cost anywhere between $600 to $1,200 a session. That would last me maybe about four to six weeks, depending on how I maintained it. A lot of times, I did kind of go on the higher end and wanted human hair because I want it to last longer. I wanted to be able to curl it, like whatever. Because if you get authentic hair, yes, it is cheaper, but you put a curling iron to it, it's going to melt. And then if you're looking at just natural hair, where you're taking the natural coils or different curl patterns from the hair, and then straightening their form, depending on how the length is, depending on the process, that could be a 200, 300 session fee, depending on what city you're in. In bigger cities, it costs a whole lot more money. And on top of that, you tip them. You know what I'm saying?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, for service.

Devon Peterika

You want to make sure yes because you want to make sure they take you back. And then if you're getting braids, braids take about okay. I used to get micro braids. My booty would hurt so bad it would take about twelve-plus hours to get it done. And I want to say I paid probably about 80 to 100 something bucks for the hair itself, and then paid about 200 to get it done. My girlfriend just got goddess locks. Goddess locks. Oh my God, they're so gorgeous. I overheard the fee, and I was like, you'll make me want to grow hair just to get my goddess locks. But it was like $800. It is financially an investment to look great.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Devon Peterika

Go ahead.

Phil Wagner

Well, and to straighten, too. And I want to be very clear, no shame. You all do what you want to do with your hair. You do what you want to do. People like different things. People prefer different things. So this is not to say anything is wrong. We're not creating rules here. But for those that choose to straighten hair through chemical means, can you speak to that process? That also takes time. It takes money. It can be risky. It's a risky endeavor in some places. Am I incorrect in my framing here?

Devon Peterika

Absolutely. And that's why a lot of people stay in natural form because a lot of times and again, it can be up in the hundreds of dollars to get your hair straightened in general. Whether it's flat iron, whether it's if I forgot what they call this, it's like some type of blow drying out that actually stresses your hair out, and it can cause it to thin out and burn the follicles. So we're basically damaging our hair to satisfy everybody else. But it can range from anywhere between two to $500 easy, depending on where you're located. I live in Florida, so imagine.

Phil Wagner

And then the humidity, because I know I was in Florida for many years too.

Devon Peterika

Yeah, as soon as you walk outside, it's just into an Afro. Like you all wonder why we don't go swimming. I bet you don't get my hair wet because of the investment and time that it costs to get it done. It costs a pretty penny for us to get our hair done. And a lot of times, again, a lot of my friends that have decided to go natural is to make sure that they have healthy hair. They just want healthy hair because chemicals basically can burn it out. Let blow drying it out. What is that term? I keep forgetting what it's called, but my daughter got it once upon a time. And the best part is it messes up our curl pattern sometimes. If we took too much heat to it, it actually can adjust the curl pattern in certain parts of our hair. Who wants that?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think the anecdote is okay. Well, you don't want to pay for long braids. You don't want to pay for locks. You don't want to pay or risk the chemical treatment. Go natural. But in the world of work, natural hair is not the cure-all. Right. This is not always accepted as meeting a professional, and I like to think that things are changing. We've had a variety of guests who have talked about changing senses of professionalism codes, particularly the pandemic has changed a lot of what we think of as now a professional. But natural hair historically has not always just been widely accepted in the world of work, correct?

Devon Peterika

No, it has not. It is doing better, much or better. And I want to say I've only I say it's improved probably over the course of the past couple of years because of all the things that have been going on as it pertains to the D&I space, and even down to head wraps, because sometimes African Americans wear head wraps to keep their hair they'll have their hair braided underneath, put a head wrap on. And people like, oh, that's so unprofessional. We did it in Africa. Let us be great. So it's, like, very frustrating that we have to sit in this cookie-cutter model to be professional. And then my question is, who determines what professionalism was?

Phil Wagner

Who determines? Yeah. Who is that term most inclusive of? Who does it create the most latitude for? Not often workers of color or other historically underrepresented folks.

Devon Peterika

Yeah, absolutely.

Phil Wagner

Let's talk about touching. You talked about this earlier, particularly within the sentiment on natural hair. I read Phoebe Robinson's book. She had this great book called You Can't Touch My Hair and Other things I shouldn't have to explain. And again, you're here to educate us. We've sort of negotiated like we're going to talk about this. I want to be very clear. I'm never just going to go up to somebody and be like, hey, tell me about natural hair. But I appreciate you coming on to share, but can you speak to a little bit about that dignity violation of reaching into someone's personal space? You've had some stories on that as well. Talk to us about touching hair and maybe why we shouldn't do it. I like to think that's obvious, but I guess it's not.

Devon Peterika

But here's the best part. People will be willing to rub my bald head too.

Phil Wagner

No. Are you serious?

Devon Peterika

It's very dehumanizing.

Phil Wagner

Dehumanizing. Absolutely.

Devon Peterika

It is almost like I am a model that says I am not normal. Let me touch and see. Let me, and then it's like, you are entitled what you're entitled so the audacity.

Phil Wagner

It's like when people rub pregnant bellies, right? It's like, what are you doing?

Devon Peterika

But even that's her what. Can you ask? Hey, can I go? Can I rub? Okay. I understand. I'm excited. I see a baby belly. I won't rub if that's not what she desires because it's her body.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Devon Peterika

Like, who wants to be touched? And then to be petted on like a pet. Like, that wears me down. Because I remember, and probably about last month, someone came up to me and said, can I just rub your head? I said no.

Phil Wagner

No.

Devon Peterika

Why is that even something that you want to do that's just freaky, like, ugh. But even on hair, like no, go rub your dog.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Devon Peterika

Why do I have to satisfy your curiosity to be the experiment today? So you can satisfy, see what the texture is like? No. For me, I feel like it's a violation on so many different levels. And it's funny because usually, of course, it's white people because they don't have that texture of hair, because they're curious, and I get the innocence in their mind, but it's perceived as microaggression because you're treating me as if I am not normal or human.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, we don't pet other humans. That's not a practice that we do.

Devon Peterika

Say it again for the people.

Phil Wagner

I know, it's so true. Again, it reduces somebody to sort of like an art exhibit at best.

Devon Peterika

A dog.

Phil Wagner

A dog. It's so dehumanizing. And I think people just maybe don't think about it, but again, part of this is normalizing. Think about it. Think about it. Think about how your direct actions are contributing to the development of somebody's dignity and self-worth and or working against that. And I can find no formula where putting my fingers in your hair. I would never do that. But I can find no formula where that leads to you leaving that conversation, feeling better about yourself, having more dignity than you walked into that conversation with.

Devon Peterika

I've seen people be like, oh, my God, your hair is so gorgeous. You don't see us going up to white people. Okay, I'm not going to say never. I don't want to say never, but I have never in my life of 43 years seen a black person go up to a white person, like, can I touch your hair? Or just going or feeling I have the right to go and just touch their space. I've never seen that. And it's like, can you show us the same level of respect?

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and hopefully, the pandemic has taught us, like, hey, maybe we don't need to be touching each other at all. That and me too, I think, are like, okay, maybe I'll just keep our hands to ourselves in general. But I think it's just a powerful reminder here of if you are white and navigating this space, it's not even white folks. It's just maybe people who don't have this hair experience. Raise the profile of your awareness. Do the digging again I mentioned on a previous episode. You've got access to Dr. Google. You can find information as to why this is not an acceptable social practice. You can find information about the cost, the burden, the ways in which this does put undue stress, particularly on black women, but also just sort of black and brown folks in general, to align. I mean, you can do that research yourself. So let's wrap this down a little bit, too. I want to talk about that standard of professionalism that we opened this conversation with, professionalism codes, hair codes, dress codes. As an HR practitioner, do you really see those as DEI issues? I mean, how can you give us some understanding on how DEI and HR might understand those issues in tandem? Does that make sense?

Devon Peterika

Yes. I feel like it definitely is a D&I issue, or I'm not going to say an issue. I'm going to say a D&I matter that probably will fall under our umbrella. And the reason being is because when it comes to professionalism, my thing is if it doesn't impact the productivity of the person's work, it doesn't matter to me. There was funny because I work for a global company, and someone told me the story that they were in another country. I can't remember what country they were in. The women wore a lot of sheer stuff, and they were like, oh, my God, she needs to cover up. She needs to whatever. You're not in America. You're in another country. And when they started talking about it, because they didn't go to the employee immediately, they realized it was a cultural thing. That's the thing. Assess your environment. Assess the culture. Don't go in there gun blazing, assuming people to take on the perspective of what you have. Is the girl doing the job? Are you tempted about her sheer shirt? Like, why are you bothered about her sheer shirt? Is she doing her work? You know what I'm saying? As long as she's not showing out places of her body that are her private parts, let her be great. That is my coin phrase, let them be great. Because a lot of times, when we say this is not professionalism, and it all goes down to cultural competency to me, and when we don't have relationship, and we lead by do what I say in this dominating manner, we won't get nowhere in this space. And I feel like it kind of aligns with HR because, in human resources, we are supposed to make sure that humans are effective in the workplace. And just what I wear and how my hair is, as long as it's presentable and I'm doing well at my job, I feel like the rest doesn't matter.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I think that's just such a balanced framing, right? That, sure, there are standards it's fine to have. Like you said, you want everything hanging out everywhere. There are standards of propriety, but this is a much bigger conversation, and we have created nuances, and we've created rules, and we've created sort of unsaid structures that definitely disenfranchise certain folks. I think we have to step back and take a lens as to why that is and what purpose it serves. All right, so final question for you, my friend. As we end our conversation today, I always like to end by asking guests to share more on their suggestions for sort of creating organizational environments that are places where employees can truly survive and thrive. And I think that's key because a lot of workers are not even surviving. They are leaving in droves. We want to help address that, but also, like, create those environments where they can thrive. So can you speak directly to leaders, to managers, to executives on what they can do right here and right now to improve the world of work based on the conversation that we've had today?

Devon Peterika

I would say for especially the executive and senior leadership to take a beat and step back and think from a cultural competency standpoint and also get down in the trenches. What happens is, a lot of times, group executives and senior leaders, they come up with these theories of things they want to implement in the organization. Everything's fine, everything's fine. But then, as things cascade down, there begins to be bottlenecks. Whether it's inefficient processes, whether your front-line leader doesn't believe in the hype of what you're trying to do, they're not drinking the Kool-Aid of diversity, whatever, get from your C suite and get down in the trenches and see what your people are doing and saying. Don't do no formal survey. Go out in the field so they can see you, see that you care, and then say, what does this look like? Why is she over there? Seeming like she's disconnected from the rest of the group. It doesn't seem like we have a lot of ethnic people out here. I thought our data shows this, but oh, I realized that are only African American represent our entry-level positions. Go out and see what the actual work environment looks like instead of just looking at reports. That is my recommendation.

Phil Wagner

That's it. It all goes back to relationships.

Devon Peterika

Yes.

Phil Wagner

You can deepen those relationships. You're going to strengthen your organizational processes, and you're going to help make your DEI work more meaningful too. You're going to embed it throughout all parts of the organization, and it starts with such a personal commitment. Thank you for sharing so personally today, so vulnerably and openly. Thank you for your story, thank you for your work, and for your insights. It's been a great pleasure speaking to you, my friend. Thanks for a great conversation today.

Devon Peterika

Thank you for having me. I'm always excited to chat with you.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Everett Harper
Everett HarperEpisode 38: February 27, 2023
The Architecture of DEI

Everett Harper

Episode 38: February 27, 2023

The Architecture of DEI

Today on the show we're pleased to be joined by Everett Harper, CEO of Truss - a human-centered software development company that has been designated by Inc Magazine as a Fastest Growing Company for the past two years. Everett's book "Move to the Edge, Declare it Center: Practices and Process for Creatively Solving Complex Problems" was released in March of 2022. Everett and host Phil Wagner talk about the very means and challenges of creating a DEI infrastructure for both leaders, employees, and more.

Podcast (audio)

Everett Harper: The Architecture of DEI TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What it means to move to the edge of your thinking
  • How one can move their DEI work forward when faced with uncertainty
  • How Everett's own experiences led to his writing of his book
  • What are the best communication strategies when leading multiple types of people
  • How corporate leaders see DEI work as both a problem and a solution
  • What it means to build DEI infrastructure
  • How to build DEI infrastructure in the absence of consistent frameworks across the world of work
  • The difference between interior and exterior DEI practices
  • What the role of imagination is when solving complex problems in the DEI space
  • Why communication is so important when designing DEI architecture
Transcript

Everett Harper

The challenge would be, what are the small little pieces of infrastructure you can create? That doesn't have to be a big initiative. Often it's the small things, like how can we connect in an easy way with low lift that's sustainable and repeatable, that then builds culture over time.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome listeners to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real human lived experiences in our pursuit of a more just and equitable organizational world of work. I'm joined today by Everett Harper. Everett is the CEO and co-founder of Truss, a human-centered software development company. It bears noting that Truss has been designated as an Ink Magazine 5000 fastest-growing company for the past two years. Everett is an alum of Stanford and Duke, the latter of which I take small issue with because I'm an alum of the University of Kansas. But we're going to let it slide. But we're here today because Everett's thought leadership has led to a new book released this spring called Move to the Edge, Declare It Center, which is a strategy guide for business leaders facing complex problems that require immediate decisions in the face of uncertain outcomes.

Phil Wagner

Everett, it's a pleasure to meet with you. I'm a fan of your work and delighted to chat with you today.

Everett Harper

Thank you. I really appreciate it. And you have no reason to take any issue since you have bragging rights for the year University with Kansas, so Rock Chalk Jayhawk, you all earned it.

Phil Wagner

Thank you. Rock Chalk Jayhawk, indeed. Look, let's jump right in. First and foremost, I love catchy titles, and your title is so catchy I've read your work. But for those that haven't, can you give us sort of the elevator pitch for Move to the Edge, Declare It Center?

Everett Harper

Yeah. So Move to the Edge Declared Center. Move to the Edge is about moving to the boundary of your knowledge and into the unknown. And the book talks about methods to help people make decisions through all that uncertainty. Declare It Center is the part that once you come up with an innovation or new strategy where people often fail is they don't put it into a system and make it repeatable and sustainable. So Declare It Center is taking those discoveries, creating systems so you can share, scale, and sustain the work. And that's particularly important for DEI.

Phil Wagner

So one of the things I thought about as I read the work is where does the most difficulty lie? And when we're thinking about DEI specifically, sometimes I think it's that movement piece. We like to think that it's sort of the infrastructure that gets in the way the most. But I think a lot of people look at the landscape of DEI, a lot of leaders who would call themselves inclusion oriented, and they say, oh my gosh, there is so much going on, I don't even know where to start, how to get in, what to do, how to move forward. Can you share any strategies that you might have for people who are who want to get in, who want to move but find themselves so paralyzed by fear or that unknown? Any insight from your work?

Everett Harper

Yeah, I would say there's probably two levels, and we can explore both if it's interesting. One is sort of the organizational level, the pragmatic level. What's the issue we're trying to address? Or what's the outcome you're looking for? And I feel like a lot of people forget to ask, what does it look like? Paint a vivid picture of what an outcome, a successful outcome, or a problem we're trying to avoid looks like that tends to narrow one's focus. And rather than saying, well, let's do DEI, it becomes, how do we have a leadership team that reflects the US population? What does it look like to design a product where we can reduce our blind spots by having more voices around the table? Those actually are outcomes that or questions you can ask. And then an outcome might look like, yeah, we want a product team that is comprised of these kinds of people. Now you've narrowed the problem. Now you've narrowed the solutions. So that's on the organizational side, briefly, on the personal side, where do you start? That's a really interesting question because I included, and I think, hopefully, it comes across in a business book. I include interior practices, the things where you have to develop your own self-awareness, find out where your blind spots are, understand your own reactions to stress and uncertainty. When you're talking about freezing, that's a really common problem. When people are faced with unknowns or I don't know the answer, and being able to sit with that and realize, oh, this is my reaction to uncertainty, and then be able to have strategies to move forward anyway, that is really the key to those interior practices, and both are important.

Phil Wagner

And I want to come to those interior practices, certainly in just a bit, because that occupies a significant part of your work. But I really first want to go back to its, like, in the intro section, right away in the preface of the book. I love good storytelling, and you drop us into a good story. You drop us into a tough conversation where you highlight an article by Ellen McGregor where she talks about the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and argues that when two black men are killed by police, one at a traffic stop in front of his four-year-old daughter. Employers must recognize that their employees, just like the rest of the country, are likely deeply affected.

Everett Harper

Yeah.

Phil Wagner

And then you talk about how this really hit you because you're the employer. Right. So you talk about how you occupy this strange position. You don't have a sign on your car, you say, that says, don't shoot, I'm a CEO. Can you talk about how your own experiences have sort of led to or informed this work?

Everett Harper

Yeah, I wanted to lead with that story because I wanted people to hear that it's both a business book and a personal book. And with this particular issue in particular, they're intertwined, and by telling a story, hopefully, brought people into that space. For me, as a black founder or black CEO, I think where I would go with that is I came to Silicon Valley in 1996, and you could probably put all the black founders and CEOs at a small dinner table, and that's it. It wasn't the image of Silicon Valley. And so it reinforced the kind of growing up experience of being the only one in this class or the only one in sports or the only one in this playing flute. Right, whatever. And eventually, what became a survival tactic just to navigate that became a skill. How do I understand what is in the room? And then it became an insight, wait a minute. I can see the assumptions that people who are in the center make about any given situation by being on the edge, whether it's being a CEO in the Silicon Valley in 1996 or being a CEO actually now too. And this is for everybody in some ways. It's not about being a black CEO. It just gave me an insight that the innovators and the people who are thinking around the corner, and the people who can solve problems are often those who are not at the center. They're the people on the edge and looking for ways to solve problems or be included in a different way. So I think that's probably the headline for me.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I really appreciate that, and I think a little bit more about how that might open up conversation on the impetus to move. Right. For me, I'm a qualitative researcher. I'm a communications guy. I really prioritize lived experiences. That moves me. We also live in a world that prioritizes data-driven decision-making. And so I'm wondering, from your perspective back to that impetus to move, do you find that one of those is more beneficial, particularly in the DEI space, than the other?

Everett Harper

One of which?

Phil Wagner

So storytelling and or data?

Everett Harper

Yeah. So I'm going to try my best to cite this well, but there's a woman named Christina Harbridge who wrote this book called Swayed, and she's been really informative for me about how to communicate these types of issues. And I'm very aware of talking to communications expert. So you might say, Ah, that's nothing. But here's the way I frame it, that there are people who are motivated by a couple of different things. Some are motivated by we like the team. Some are motivated by process. Tell me what is next, and then I can hear what you're saying. Some are motivated by purpose. What's the higher meaning of this? And others are motivated by goals. Tell me where we're trying to get to it. I'll just nail it. Every communication I'm making, my best communications address all four. So whether it's a story or an annotation, if I can weave in each part of that, then that's where I try and go. That's where I'm trying to drop impetus into the people who are listening. So obviously, the communication stuff, know your audience. What is my outcome I'm trying to get? What am I trying to do? But then the next level is knowing that everybody hears something different. And if I do it well, they will see themselves in my communication. And even if they're totally motivated by a different thing than the next person sitting next to them.

Phil Wagner

I think that's a wonderful framing, and it's not lost on me that that's a great way to not oversimplify and not overcomplicate, to find balance and be multiple things to multiple people without sacrificing your values, without sacrificing or conceding on the need at hand. You're just being strategic here in how you frame the problem, how you frame the solution, how you frame the outcomes. Let's talk a little bit about problem formation here. So as I read the book, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is a little bit how to reconcile notions of diversity as a solution or a benefit because it's often positioned that way, right? There's a benefit to having diverse people in groups and teams. Diversity is a benefit for organizations. Inclusive cultures offer benefits to employees. So there's this diversity as solution, but then there's sort of this guiding sentiment of diversity as a problem. There are problems related to diversity and equity and inclusion in the world of work that we've got to fix. So what I'm trying to do is better understand how corporate leaders see diversity as something that's highly beneficial in the solution or something that's sort of compliance anchored and a problem that needs to be fixed. Does your work give us any insight here as we think about the DEI enterprise? How do we see DEI as problem and or solution?

Everett Harper

Yeah, so that's a really interesting question. There's a lot of layers. I'll see if I can break it down a little bit because there's a lot of layers in there. There's a wide range of how corporate leaders in my experience address this and some address it well, some address it poorly. Let's just be frank. On the compliance side, this is where I think kind of the traditional older version of diversity, even coming out of EEOC, coming out of affirmative action, where the goals were, let's get as many people of color, let's get more women into positions, and it became a checkbox, right? We've hired somebody, so let's check that box. We are complying with the rules. The Rooney Rule in the NFL. Same sort of thing. We have interviewed a black candidate, but we also know that that's not the outcome. That's not the you haven't you've complied with the rule, but the rule has defined you defined the rule wrong, basically. And that's then the sort of emergence of inclusion started to come in, et cetera. So I also see enterprises focus on how do we become moral citizens in the world. It represents moral citizens in the world. So it's not necessarily a benefits at actually a third level. It's like, how are we representing us? I actually find that somewhat problematic too. Right? Let's put a commercial on, and then it's tone-deaf, and we can say all sorts of versions of that. Where I think it gets much more interesting is when people attach it to the business, attach it to the goals of the organization. I think I say in my book the reason why it's so important is if diversity is a side project and is disconnected with the mission of the organization, guess what happens when budgets get tight or a client decides to drop, or there's some other crisis. That side project becomes dismissed. The more that people can articulate this is important to our organization because we want these outcomes or because the operation of this business work best, or because we the amount of blind spots that we have in our business. Now, it becomes neither benefit, it becomes essential, crucial to the business, operational to the business. That's much more interesting, and for me, that's more sustainable. So instead of saying we have a D&I initiative, I can say we have cohorts in our recruiting. We have a process in our recruiting where we can measure every single cohort for new positions. And the people who are in charge of that is the people who are dealing with on a daily basis our recruiting team and our hiring team. And then, we have systems to make sure that we can be visible about the results. So it just becomes part of operations, and that gets really interesting.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's what's interesting to me too. And you are somewhat of an infrastructurist. I mean, this is embedded throughout all of your work, right? So you talk about infrastructure in the book. There's not one, at least by my assessment, there's not one sort of DEI infrastructure. I mean, there are a variety of models, there's some good rubrics that we can use for organizational success, but there's not one guiding sort of infrastructure here. So how do you build an infrastructure framework in the absence of one consistent for DEI across organizations writ large?

Everett Harper

Yeah. So first little definition just for people listening what I mean, because infrastructure, it's not buildings and roads, it's not bridges, et cetera. It's really the interaction between people, technology, and systems. So the operations of a business, it's the interaction between them that's the infrastructure. So everything from repeatable processes like your weekly all hands all the way to your CRM are versions of infrastructure. And when you think about it that way, it becomes much more flexible to think, oh, this is how it relates to DEI. The reason I emphasize infrastructure is a lot of DEI work for a lot of folks, has a very compelling moral imperative, has a compelling social imperative, and that's awesome. And at the same time, it's exhausting. If all you're relying on is heroism. Heroism is not sustainable.

Phil Wagner

Say that again.

Everett Harper

Systems are sustainable. Right. And so the burnout that people are feeling, and it's very real, and I'm sure there's some nodding heads out there like, oh my God. The question I would then ask is, oh, wait, instead of carrying the burden yourself or with your team, how can you take that work and create an infrastructure that enables it to be systematized? What that then does is enable the work to be not carried by the heroism of a few but by the small lift of many so that it becomes almost trivial to your daily experience. And there's lots of different examples, but that's sort of, for me, the connection between building infrastructure and why it's so important for DEI.

Phil Wagner

That's excellent. I want to talk you mentioned earlier, you teed it up so well talking about interior practices, and you talk about two in the book, right? Exterior and interior. That's a really profound segment of your work. So can you explain or contextualize those perhaps within sort of the greater realm of DEI for our listeners? Because both are very important to that infrastructure.

Everett Harper

Sure. And I'm glad you pointed out because it was a deliberate choice to say interior and exterior are important. Exterior, for the purpose of this conversation, are the processes, the methods that you can use within your organization to implement DEI. So, for example, if you are doing recruiting and hiring and blind interviews, so you erase someone's name, that's a piece of infrastructure. That's an exterior practice that you use within your organization to help get to remove bias in your interviews. An interior practice, on the other hand, is that what you do for yourself, your own habits, your own practices. In some ways, it's your personal infrastructure. So you may have something that says, I'm going to remove bias in my interview, but then the interior practice is, am I biased? If I'm biased, where are my biases? How do I learn about them? If I have them? Am I working on them, or am I just reactive to them? And so that second piece, the interior practice, is really important because we often replicate the systems we're trying to eradicate if we're not self-aware about our own reactions to different things. And the general point in the book is around the unknowns and uncertainties. But for DEI, it's the unknowns and uncertainties of saying, do I really talk that much in a meeting when I hear women say that, wait a minute, in the room? I've said a particular point, and it only got recognized when another guy said the exact same point. Was I that person? Those questions start to get real interesting, and that's the interior practice, being aware and then being able to respond in the moment and practicing it.

Phil Wagner

Difficult question here. Does every leader have the ability to get to that place? I mean, I think of some of the obstacles that we encounter in the world of work-related DEI. I think it goes back to a profound lack of the ability to self-reflect. Does your work offer us any insight on how to motivate those who seem reticent to do that deep digging, that have that intellectual curiosity to sort of get there and ask those internal questions?

Everett Harper

Yeah. Oh, boy. There are a lot of different answers I could get in terms of motivating. One, I think that we have been trained, and I talk about this in the book, we've been trained to have the right answer. Like everybody, think about when you're in fourth grade, were you trained to raise your hand first, say the answer loudest, say it first. We've been trained that way. We weren't trained to ask the right question. We weren't trained to sit within this country. Trained to sit with. Are there other answers or other perspectives?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Everett Harper

Right. You get to being a leader, and you're all of a sudden faced with all sorts of different challenges, and you don't have the answer. Many leaders, that's a freeze moment. And we saw that in the pandemic. We saw that in remote work. We saw that in response to the killings of George Floyd and other things. And so you reach that point of not knowing, and you're not trained in that. And so the self-awareness to say, wait a minute, I don't know the answer is, for some leaders, the first time that they come in contact with, oh, what do I do now? I'm uncertain. I'm trained as a leader to know all the answers. So any leaders out there that hasn't had that moment, I'm going to side-eye you a little bit. So that's first, the motivation it's like, you're going to get there, so how do you deal with that? The second motivating thing is I am very deliberate about saying these are practices. So, for example, I've been meditating mindfulness meditation since 1992, so almost 25 years. And it's a practice. I was terrible at it at first, right? And I get better, and sometimes I regress, and so forth. But like any riding a bike, like any practice, you get better with repeated cycles, and you get trained and you get mentors and so forth. And then, eventually, you realize you have a body of work that I can rely on. So for me, meditation has been I can slow down when things are really intense. I can feel a sense of emotional distress or uncertainty, but then step back and say, Ah, that's uncertainty. It's not me. It's a feeling. And those feelings shift and change. Then I can start to pause and take a moment. So I'll give you a practical example for DEI. So one of the things as a CEO you realize that you should hold your tongue more often than not. One of our newer employees a couple of years ago, our first trans employee, came in and bravely said, within about a couple of weeks, hey, you know what? We don't have any pronouns. I would really appreciate and this person. They wrote up a diagram that said a proposal that said, I'd like to include our pronouns in all of our slack channels and on our zoom calls.

Phil Wagner

Wow.

Everett Harper

My initial reaction inside was, why are you doing that? It's going to make all our names too long. It's going to be clutter in our feeds. Right. But I recognized, oh, that's just my initial response. Let me take a pause and realize, wait a second. This is a new employee making a suggestion that works for them. Is there really any cost to that? No, this could be an experiment. Cool. That pause was critical. That's part of the practice. They decided to do it, and then people got on board, and I was like, okay, this is important to people. Great. I'm glad I was quiet. We implemented it easy. It was really helpful for folks. But here was the payoff. The next three people I interviewed because I used to do all the interviews. When I was the final interview, the next three people, unprompted, said, hey, and I really appreciate that you have your pronouns. I said, really? Why? Well, it's not my thing. It's not important necessary for me to have pronouns I'm he, him, or she her. But if you've created an environment that's comfortable for folks, who are they them? You've probably made an environment that's comfortable for me too, and my issues or in my challenges and my identity. And I sat back after the third one. I sat back and like, wow, I was completely wrong. I'm glad I paused, and I'm glad the practice of including and accepting, and creating an environment for people to make those suggestions paid off in ways that could not have possibly imagined.

Phil Wagner

I am so glad you went there because I think that's a perfect retelling of something you teed up earlier, which is that you can be multiple things to multiple people. That specific example has clear organizational outcomes, right? So you've got those recruits, those new hires, coming in and expressing appreciation, feeling plugged into the culture. That's great for the organization, but for those that are wrapped up in sort of that higher moral imperative, there's data on this, too, right? The Trevor Project did a study. It's like 40,000, folks. Those specific affirmative communication patterns decreased the intent to commit suicide by a significant amount. Right.

Everett Harper

Wow, wow.

Phil Wagner

So for organizations, great benefit for people getting life benefit. This can be multiple things to multiple people. Same practice, but speaks to multiple sort of different access points. I love that. And then I think too, thinking about self-reflection, your tale here of your immediate reaction, your pause, and then your reframing is important because I think often when we have those immediate reactions, either we don't vocalize them, shame ourselves for having them, when growth is something that I think we should prioritize here. So that, self-reflection also has a way of eventually giving you grace for yourself and then bringing about grace for others as they work through the stuff.

Everett Harper

Yeah, absolutely.

Phil Wagner

And this relates to something, one of my favorite parts of your book. It's kind of a small piece, but I loved it. I learned something new here was about imaginable cells. Do you remember that part of the book?

Everett Harper

Yeah, of course.

Phil Wagner

I have to be honest. I had no idea what those were. Can you talk a little bit about those and the role of imagination in solving complex problems in the DEI space?

Everett Harper

Yeah. So I'm glad you noted that. I wanted to put that little piece in. Also, just like a little mark in the book, a little pause in some ways. So for listeners, imaginal cells are cells within a caterpillar, and those cells are actually antigens to the caterpillar's existence. However, they also include all blueprints for making a butterfly. So, yes, this is another butterfly story, but I promise it's.

Phil Wagner

No, it's a good one.

Everett Harper

And the key is those imaginal cells, as antigens are in some ways not able to function. But what they do is try and link with each other. Once sufficient numbers of these imaginal cells link with each other. They form this network. That network then signals the caterpillar to go into chrysalis and dissolve completely into goop. You're now a mass of proteins. However, those imaginal cells take over. They are the architects. They reassemble all those proteins into the butterfly, and then the butterfly flies away. The metaphor for me of the imaginal cell is about it can be lonely sometimes to do DEI work in isolation. You could think that if you're an innovator, it can feel really for people who are in internal innovation teams. I've heard so many stories of feeling like no one understands what we're trying to do, and everybody attacks us because we're threatening to the established order. However, when you reach out and you do podcasts like this, and you create a network of people trying to make change, all of a sudden, it's like, wait a minute, we're onto something. We can support each other. So there's the network, and if there's sufficient people in that network who are saying, yes, let's try and make a change if you apply the right leverage, you could be the architects of something beautiful. You can be architects of something new. So for me, in some ways, it's less about imagination, except perhaps that you can imagine there are other people like you, but it's really about connection, it's about networks, and it's about being able to create massive change with small amounts of highly strategic action and with leverage. So that's why I like that story. And I forgot you can't do it without going through the goo. You can't do it without the messiness that comes with it. And it's not messy for everybody else. It's messy for you, too, right? So that's the thing.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. Our own president, Katherine Rowe, here at William & Mary a few months ago, was speaking to faculty and reminded all of us to not be held back by the fear of doing something not fully perfect in the DEI space.

Everett Harper

Absolutely.

Phil Wagner

Be brave enough to do the right thing, to do the thing that advances our shared values and commitments in this space, and know that we're probably going to mess it up. We're going to go through the goo, as you say, and to give ourselves and others grace as we do that. And to me, I've never heard something that really just stuck with me of giving ourselves permission to go through that goo and know that it's messy. So that's good. I'm a communications guy, Everett, and so one of the things I really appreciate about your book is that it is about infrastructure, but it's also about the small things that build infrastructure. One of those things to me is always communication. You can tell a lot about an organization by the tenor of communication that exists within it. So you've got a few, like, communication activities.

Everett Harper

Yeah, sure.

Phil Wagner

What purpose do you sort of see interactions or those interactions serving in problem-solving? Can you tie together communication and problem-solving for us?

Everett Harper

Yeah, absolutely. So for context for the people who are listening, Truss, we're 130 people or so, and we've been primarily remote first for an entire decade. So we've developed a lot of these communication practices, in part because we have to solve the problem of how do we join our work. So there's lots going on with sort of doing the work, but smartly one of our employees decided, wait, but we have to make sure we stay connected also. And so they said, let's create a half an hour every Friday, and it's before our all-hands meeting for something called being humans together. And being humans together is optional. You can attend as much as you want. Anybody at any level can attend. And we started this when we were 20 people, and it still goes on. And it's basically you get on if there's one, if there's sufficient people, you go into breakout rooms, and the question might be, tell us a story about the thing that's behind you on your wall. Tell us the most boring, interesting story when you were 13. Tell us what movie character you wanted to be when you were five, and tell us your favorite dad jokes. The dad joke ones are crazy in terms of participation. But what it does is it's a piece of infrastructure. It is a regular, systematic way for people to plug in with very little effort. It's just half an hour. You can go when you want, but it creates a place where you can be silly, where you can find out more about the person behind. And that develops trust. And trust is really key to being able to have any organization. But particularly in a DEI frame, the challenge would be, what are the small little pieces of infrastructure you can create that doesn't have to be a big initiative? Often it's the small things, like, how can we connect in an easy way with low lift that's sustainable and repeatable, that then builds culture over time.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I love that. That human connection. Stephen Denning reminds us that analysis often excites the brain, but it doesn't offer a path to the heart. Right. So we've got to go to motivate and to drive change and to drive action. And so what I like about that being humans together thing is it centers humanity, centers dignity, it centers the why behind our DEI initiatives. That is what brings sustainability. So, final question for you today. Your work gives us a lot of insights, not just in DEI. I mean, we can apply the principles here to a litany of organizational problems, which is what I love about this. But I think specifically for DEI. There are just so many takeaways. So if we were to buy your book, which I hope all of our listeners will please do, it's a wonderful read, and we were to put those principles in action in the DEI space, what could you envision for our realities? What would come to fruition if we took your principles and applied them to DEI?

Everett Harper

I think the key would be, particularly for leaders, is something you referred to earlier. You don't have to be perfect. You have to step up, and you have to speak up. And you're going to say, I might mess up, but I'm going to acknowledge that this is in the room, and I don't know the answer. Can I facilitate this for us so that we can create a better outcome for all of us? That's for leaders in particular. Second, it's starting with outcomes and purpose and then designing little experiments. So take the weight off, take the weight off. Design a little experiment, something that you can do, that you can reverse, and you just get data. Third, you don't have to do it yourself. There's so much wisdom in the room. And as a leader, your job is to create an environment for that wisdom to come out. And then, finally, I think it's I'm going to quote Damian Hooper Campbell, who's a leader in a variety of companies, latest at Uber and Zoom and Lyft and so forth. And he said DEI progress is measured in quarters and years, not in weeks and months. So by doing these little experiments, what you do is get 1% better. 1% better every week. Every quarter starts to accumulate, and the next thing you know, you've made incredible progress, but it hasn't felt like a heroic lift. So I think that is the last piece that I would add.

Phil Wagner

It's fantastic. This is such a great conversation. Again, I just want to reiterate for our listeners what a good read.

Everett Harper

Thank you.

Phil Wagner

Just so well written. And as a professor, I'm always looking for ways I can take really interesting concepts and put them into pragmatic outcomes. And you have both. So thank you for great writing, thank you for great conversation. Thank you for your work. It's such an honor to speak with you. Everett, thanks so much for joining us on our podcast.

Everett Harper

I really appreciate it. And just to add, book is Move to the Edge, Declare it Center. You can get it on all the places, Amazon, as well as the indie bookstores. I'm a big supporter of independent bookstores, so indie books and bookshop.org is ways that you can get it. Or you can follow me. I have my own site, everretharper.com. I'm at truss.works. That's for my company. And we are definitely hiring. If you want a kind of environment that is fitting in with this, and then on all the socials I'm Everett Harper, Twitter, et cetera, come interject and please ask questions or challenge things. This is the start of a conversation, and I really appreciate where you went with this because it's a different look and a very unique look, and so I really appreciate it.

Phil Wagner

Thank you, sir, and listeners, as we do this work together, let's build those networks. Please follow support. Everett, Everett thanks again for your time today. It's been a real pleasure.

Everett Harper

All right, all you imaginal cells out there, let's go.

Phil Wagner

There we go.

Everett Harper

Cheers.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Chon Glover
Chon GloverEpisode 37: February 13, 2023
Strategizing the Long Game

Chon Glover

Episode 37: February 13, 2023

Strategizing the Long Game

Today we welcome Dr. Chon Glover, a monumental fixture and change agent here at William & Mary. She came to William & Mary in 1996 from Presbyterian College and has served in myriad roles in that time. Most know her as the Chief Diversity Officer, a position she has served faithfully since 2012. She has accomplished multitudes for DEI leadership in the context of higher education and it is an honor to have her on the show today.

Podcast (audio)

Chon Glover: Strategizing the Long Game TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What Dr. Glover is most proud of in her DEI work
  • How DEI work has changed and shifted in the past 25 years
  • The importance of not having buzzwords as value statements
  • How to stay current in the continuously changing world of DEI
  • How to be resilient in the face of opposition while on one's DEI journey
  • How best to engage with DEI skeptics
  • What is the best way to move the DEI needle forward during politically divisive times
Transcript

Chon Glover

I do believe that a better day is coming. I really, really do. And I know that it will not be easy, but I try to have faith and persevere.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real, human-lived experiences that shape and inform our diversity work. It's a true honor today to speak with someone who I have learned so much from in my own DEI leadership journey. Dr. Chon Glover is a monumental fixture and a change agent here at William & Mary. She came here in 1996 from Presbyterian College, and she has served in so many roles since that time. Most of us know her now as the Chief Diversity Officer. That's a position she's served faithfully in since 2012. She has done so much for this campus, so much for DEI leadership in the context of higher ed. Chon, it is an honor to have you here on our podcast today. Thanks for joining.

Chon Glover

Thank you so much, Phil. It's a privilege.

Phil Wagner

All right. So, Chon, you're a fixture here at William & Mary. You have been here a long time and someone who has had monumental impact on my own time here. So as a tireless advocate for DEI since 96 and really before. You have helped move the needle forward on so many initiatives here at William & Mary. What are you most proud of all the things you've accomplished in the last 25 years?

Chon Glover

Well, first, I have to tell you that that was a wonderful way of saying you've been here for a long time. It was a nice way, just to say fixture. I think for me, Phil, I did not necessarily come thinking I would stay 25 years. I came in with the purpose of trying to make some change. DEI is all about transformation and change. And so I have had so many opportunities from different areas of the campus and different perspectives to be able to have some impact on change, and I've just tried to do that on a regular basis. The things that I'm most proud of are probably what I see as the things that are going to last for all time coming. And those are the landscape changes that we have seen over the last couple of years from 2016, when we dedicated Hardy and Lemon Hall, the first residence halls that were named for people of color. And then Shenkman Hillel Center, the renaming Boswell Hall, Willis Hall, Chancellor's Hall, the wall plaques at the Wren building that recognized the women, the 24 women who integrated William & Mary and also the three first African American students who were in residence. And then all the way up to the Art Masu marker that was dedicated just this past spring and also penultimately the Hearth memorial to the enslaved, which really, really added a whole front door to this campus in a way of acknowledging our history.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And to our listeners. Like many other areas in the geographic south, William & Mary has had to reckon with some past naming that we have attempted to sort of not rewrite over that history, but acknowledge the pain of that history and then be committed to a better 330 years ahead. And if you haven't been to our campus to visit some of those spaces, particularly Hearth, the Memorial to the enslaved, come at night walk by it, and it's just chill-inducing and just such a beautiful memorial. But Chon, you know William & Mary, we've been through a lot of change ourselves. We have a very long and sometimes complicated history. And I know that our institutional definition of DEI, or kind of our institutional understanding of DEI, has changed quite a bit over time, too. How has your own understanding of DEI work shifted in parallel to that process, too? How have you grown, and how you see that term and understand what it actually means to do this work?

Chon Glover

So when I came in 1996, we were still using the term minority and multicultural. And so, as you will understand, as I talk about this, the nomenclature for describing this work has changed and evolved over the years. And so a lot of that is because of those blind spots and biases that we hold that give people opportunities to create shortcuts, to create categories for people. And so we've changed because we changed from minority, because in many cases, we were changing, and the world was changing, and people of color were not necessarily the minority and are projected to be the majority in a couple of years. And so we went from minority to multicultural. Then we went to diversity, and that became a buzzword. And then as we've gone on, you know, now we've gone to inclusion, belonging, equity, and now BIPOC, so black, indigenous people of color. So as we've extended, people have wanted to find a space where representation matters and they can be identified as their true self or their true group and not just put together with other or other groups. And so it's been really important. The thing that we have to be concerned about is that we really can't allow the words to define the work.

Phil Wagner

Oh, good. Absolutely.

Chon Glover

I was fortunate enough to be a part of the team that worked on our values and our mission statement, and we had never had an actual value statement. If you'd ask any person on campus what are our values, everybody would probably come up with a totally different list. And so when we were doing that process, one of the things that I really stress is that I don't want us to say that diversity is our core value because I knew that that was going to be a target word. Some people like it, and some people don't. And so I really stress that we go with belonging because that is much more inclusion. That's how does a person feel in this community? Do they feel seen, respected, valued? And that's what we want for our community. I really wanted to not have buzzwords as our value statements. And we've had a lot of conversations around belonging for the last couple of years. We did this in 2019, and it's really caused, I think, some really great conversations because people don't necessarily want to admit what belonging really means and what inclusion means. We say, let's get the numbers, let's get all our numbers, increase our numbers. But numbers don't mean anything if people don't feel like they are part of the community.

Phil Wagner

No, I 100% agree. What I love is that it's not even just belonging, which is, of course, sort of the on-the-nose value that aligns here, but all of our other value. I'm just going to sort of William & Mary cheerlead for a second because I really am proud of some of the progress we've made. Our other values of curiosity and integrity and flourishing and service, and respect, those all directly map onto this work too. So I think leading from those values, let the values drive the language, let the values drive the initiatives, and I think that's very powerful. I mean, you've been a DEI leader, Chon, for almost three decades. I mean, really more.

Chon Glover

Right.

Phil Wagner

Where do you or where have you sought insight for your own professional development? I mean, in 1996, right when you got here, things that seem so common now, right? Like we just accept non-binary gender perspectives, or we read Land Acknowledgments, those things. It's not that they didn't exist, but they didn't have the place that they do now. Things have changed a lot. So since so much has changed, what have you found to be most helpful in your own leadership journey? To sort of keep up with the times as the seasons and the language and the concepts change?

Chon Glover

I think one of the things that's so important to me is continuous life on learning. People will say, I'm an expert in DEI. It's not that I don't want to claim that I have a knowledge base in this area. I am continuously learning because things are changing every day. William & Mary is a microcosm of society, and the world changes every minute. And so I've had to make sure that I committed myself to being a lifelong learner to read, to stay current on events, to really seek out professional development in areas as things come. And here's one of the things you probably wouldn't even think. I have to listen.

Phil Wagner

Oh, yup.

Chon Glover

Storytelling is so important, and we learn so much from people's life experiences, and we know what we need to do to actually make people feel like, again, representation matters and that their space and existence is very important and very respected. Again, going back to the nomenclature part, justice, social justice, I mean, we saw in 2020 with the aftermath of George Floyd, we saw how much justice actually really mattered. And so you now hear people saying JEDI as opposed to just DEI. And so, I just think that I have tried to stay current, do research. The data will speak for itself. I'm not a fan of Game of Thrones. I don't watch it.

Phil Wagner

I'm with you. I tried, I can't get into it. But I'm with you, Chon.

Chon Glover

But the whole common statement about winter is coming. Winter is here.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

Winter is here, and so I think we have to make sure that we know what's going on, and we are open to that and being willing to accept it. The thing that I think that prevents people from moving forward on the spectrum of learning and being advocates for DEI is that they refuse to want to learn and be open to other perspectives. And the communication is broken down. No one wants to take the time.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

And I think that is so crucial. And in order for people to do that, you have to take the time to do it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And if we've lost any Game of Thrones listeners, just come on back, come on back.

Chon Glover

It's not that I didn't like it, it's just that I've never watched it. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

I love what you're saying. It requires such an intellectual humility. Something we've talked about a lot on this podcast is you have to quiet, even maybe your inclinations or your preferences, to create rooms for other stories, some of which may be uncomfortable because you're recognizing new realities that you have not lived. And so it takes a certain higher-order skill set here. One of the things I know about you, Chon, is that you're just so human. I mean, you are kind, you are fun, you have such a positive energy, you're humble. But I know you've faced challenges. I know institutionally, we have faced challenges. And this work is certainly not always easy work. So what advice do you have for folks who are just beginning their own DEI leadership journey about how to be resilient in the face of opposition? I mean, there had to be times where you wanted to throw in the towel. What's kept you on course?

Chon Glover

Yeah, there have been many times I wanted to throw in the towel. And there have been many times when I felt like I was running but getting nowhere. And I started out in student affairs, so that's my background and my training. And so with student affairs, you have the opportunity to see the change maybe in two years, three years. And students, many times, are just very thankful and grateful that you took the time to help them. And so, when I moved into a more generalist position, I realized that those things are not necessarily the case. You don't have every four years to kind of regenerate and have seen some of the successes. One of the things that I always say, Phil, is that this is heart work.

Phil Wagner

Oh, yeah.

Chon Glover

Like H-E-A-R-T work.

Phil Wagner

No, I got you.

Chon Glover

And hard work. And we, as DEI professionals or leaders or whatever, have to make sure that we know it's a marathon and not a sprint. I had to learn that because I wanted to see change right away. And one of the things about our venerable institution that is we're 300 years old, and change is not going to happen tomorrow. But I've stayed, and I've tried to have courageous curiosity and really be brave in the part. Maya Angelou says that if we don't have courage, we can't really have any of the other virtues or take advantage of any of the other virtues. And so I've had to really reshape my purpose and just know what my purpose is and be intentional about it. But more importantly, I have to give myself grace.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely.

Chon Glover

The other part that gets to be really difficult there are a lot of times when you're standing alone. That's in any leadership position, but when you're doing DEI work, because it can be polarizing because some people have strong beliefs, it's really tough. And sometimes you got to stand by your stand on your own, and you got to have tough skin.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you have to have really tough skin.

Chon Glover

Really tough skin. And you're not sometimes going to always have friends. And what I think the Pandemic taught me more than anything is valuing self-care and valuing time with myself, to center myself, to be able to take everything in around me, but to also regenerate myself to keep going and to do what I need to do. And I'll just say quickly, and finally, I am a proud product of a people who were resilient, who persevered, who had faith, and who went through so much more than what I feel like I go through every day. And their story is what keeps me going.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so powerful.

Chon Glover

It's because if they did it, then why can't I, even with the privileges and the education and the opportunities that I have, I've got to keep doing it? Because the blood, sweat, and tears that they did and gave was for me to be able to do it. Wear these T-shirts that say I am my ancestor's wildest dreams. It's real. They didn't do this. It's like voting. People did not stand in line, get shot, killed, and all this kind of stuff for us to have the right to vote and for us not to do it. So I guess what I'm saying is I've tried to stay excited about the positions, about the work, and the job. It does get hard. It really does. But it's so impactful.

Phil Wagner

I think there's two things that really deserve some unpacking, which is the first giving yourself grace. Giving yourself grace is so important because I mean, also, you're going to say the wrong thing a time or two. You're going to maybe do the wrong thing or time or two in your effort to be well-intentioned. I think that that's really important. I think we don't do that. We don't talk about or normalize that enough. But also, I think the slow and steady wins the race thing is also something I work with a lot of our students, who I love and adore. But a lot of those folks are so justice minded they want to come in and upend the tables and change tomorrow. And organizations, much like higher education, don't often work that way. So it's finding that balance. Don't give up your values, don't give up your energy and your zeal, and your want to be a change maker. But also, how can we make this more of a strategic effort that leads to long-term sustainability? And I think your career and tenure here is one we can definitely learn from.

Chon Glover

We're working towards durable change, and that takes time. You can do things, and they're gone tomorrow.

Phil Wagner

Tomorrow, yup.

Chon Glover

We're actually talking about change for all time coming.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

This institution is different now in 2022 than it was in 1996, and it will be different in 2050.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

And we need to make sure that that's real.

Phil Wagner

And I hope you're still our Chief Diversity Officer in 2050, Chon. We can get a lot done.

Chon Glover

Phil, I care a lot about you, but I'm going to ask that you rebuke that statement.

Phil Wagner

Just kidding.

Chon Glover

That's a long time away.

Phil Wagner

I got you. So I do want to walk back a little bit. I want to talk just a little bit more about opposition, and no need to list out your enemies or anything like that, but it's speaking in a general way. This is a work that brings about a lot of opposition. How do you do that? How do you deal with that? I mean, how do you engage with DEI skeptics or those who are just completely just rebuffed by the DEI enterprise? You have to sort of meet people where they are, but also, you don't want to sacrifice your own values. So what do you do with those types of people that were likely never going to win over? How do you deal with sort of diverse stakeholders here? I guess is what I'm asking.

Chon Glover

I think for me, what I've had to do and what I always stress to people who are doing this work is know yourself. So you got to know yourself. You got to know what are you willing to take a stand for, what are you willing to actually push for. You got to be as strong and as integral as you can. You got to be curious. You got to be willing to problem-solve. And you've got to meet people where they are. I mean, you're exactly right. I said earlier that a lot of the problems that come because people refuse to be open and talk about things. It's hard to try to tell people to be open, but when you make it a human condition and talk about human beings and not necessarily people that have any particular identity intersectionality or whatever, people like, what are we trying to do for our people to make them feel comfortable? We want to make sure that we give people the space to be developed into the person that they can be and thrive. And excellence is the key word out of our values that I like to focus in on. We talk about diversity, but inclusive excellence is much more of what we really want. There is nothing negative about diversity. It is about including people and having excellence as our goal.

Phil Wagner

I love that.

Chon Glover

Whether it is academic excellence, whether it is campus climate, excellence it's all about building excellence. And I think when you try to again meet people where they are and also have conversations, but also make sure people don't try to categorize and put this work in a box and the box that's bad, you know that you got to be open and open to it and everyone's never going to agree. That's the first thing you got to understand too. Everyone's never going to agree. But I am much more about changing behaviors as opposed to attitudes because attitudes are much harder to change. And that's a personal thing. You have to want to change your attitude. But in our surrounding, in our community, we need to be able to have the behaviors that allow us to include and make sure that people feel again valued and respected so that people flourish and thrive.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, this is something I've learned from watching you too, and some of my other sort of people who have shaped me in ways of my D&I leadership, which is this goes back to the long haul, right? I came into this work sort of very naive and justice-minded and maybe more of the, like, flip the tables over variety. And I've recognized that I have much more capacity to change or to see the change that I want to see. If I am patient and if I listen and I can try to find threads of commonality in places I never thought really existed, dropping the mic doesn't really help anybody, but listening and finding where we can maybe move forward together does create that durable change you speak of. Again, I think it's just so important to go back to strategy here. One more sort of deeper layer question, an area I'm still sort of struggling with, and I'm hoping maybe you can help me here. How do you navigate the political complexity of this work? I don't want to speak for you, but I think we probably see a lot of DEI work the same way that this isn't political work, right? You're not like campaigning for anybody. This is work for all of us. But because of our current political reality, Chon, it seems to me at least that DEI work can't be fully apolitical either, right? You've navigated this role through so many different administrations in our very purple state. So what have you learned about moving the needle forward on DEI work in politically turbulent or divisive times? Tricky question.

Chon Glover

Sure, it is a tricky question. And first of all, you need to take the politics out of it and, again, focus in on the human condition as much as possible. You need to educate people, and you need to also make sure that people understand the goals of the work and why we're trying to do these kinds of things. Diversity has so many definitions, and it's multi-dimensional, and so many times, we don't think about the fact that there are different perspectives out there and all those kinds of things. And so it's difficult to sometimes deal with because people aren't willing to sit at the table and be open to listening to different viewpoints and all of that. But one of the things that I have also learned, too, is just as much as I want to laugh and talk about why it's so important to people, I have to also be respectful to listen to the opposition. So there are people who will say, I only watch CNN. I only watch NBC. I only watch certain news shows. Well, I think you got to watch both sides because you need to know what the questions are, the arguments or the viewpoints are so that when you're confronted with that, you have an answer to that question. And so I think you just have to make sure that you try to keep it as apolitical as possible, focusing on the human condition and really try to think about what are the most palatable ways to have some really generative conversations that get us to different places and know that everybody is not going to come at this from the same point.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and I think it can be done. Again, we're not going to get everybody on the same page but exposing yourself to those different sites. We don't want to live life in an echo chamber. And, of course, there are limits to that, right? You don't want to expose yourself to viewpoints that are going to contribute to your poor mental health or things like that but open up the conversation. See if you can bring all of those perspectives together, and maybe you'll get somewhere together that you thought maybe you couldn't.

Chon Glover

Well, again, know yourself.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

Sometimes if you don't have a strong sense of self, there are particular situations you don't want to place yourself in.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Chon Glover

And because you could ignite something and you are just trying to move forward and move the needle, and you don't want to ignite things in negative ways because they blow up. That's all you're trying to do. You're trying to really get to a true understanding of why this work is important. And again, why representation matters, why people want to be really seen and heard and valued. I shudder sometimes when I say those words because I feel like they become such buzzwords and things like that, but they're so real.

Phil Wagner

They're so real.

Chon Glover

When you walk into a classroom, and someone says, Hi, Professor Wagner, or whatever, it changes your whole disposition.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

Because even if you had up a defensive mechanism, it breaks it down because a person was truly kind.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

And the other part of it, too, is if a person that you totally disagree with is not kind, it makes it even more difficult. You don't want to pursue it.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you feel seen. And I think that is such an understated but important action to give to others the sense that they are seen, that they are valued. One of the things I love that we do here in the Mason Business School is we take just some welcome message and we translate it into every single one of the known spoken languages of our students so that when they walk in Miller Hall on the first day of classes, they're greeted in their own native language. Hey, welcome. You belong here. We're glad you're here. Just those small steps, I think, really showcase. Look, this is a space for you. You belong here. And that's such an important foundation to DEI work.

Chon Glover

Absolutely. Inclusion that's truly being inclusive.

Phil Wagner

So one final question for you. It's kind of two parts here, right? So, someone who is on the front lines of this work and has been so for a long time, I should say, number one, what keeps you up at night? And two, what gives you hope for a better tomorrow?

Chon Glover

What keeps me up at night? Gosh, it changes every night, Phil. In this work, you always have to be, in my opinion, you have to be proactive. You've got to think ahead of the game and know what you might have to anticipate. So for me, I always try to think about what's going on in the world. And because William & Mary is a microcosm of society, how is that going to impact us? Because it's not going to impact us just because it's happening. It's going to impact the people who are here, the curriculum here, it's going to impact all of us. So I try to be a problem solver and really think about, if this were to happen, how can we address it on the front end and not be reactive? When you are reactive, it really just does not help the case because there are emotions involved and all of that. So when I try to turn the mind off and just rest and relax, I try not to think about these things. But before I turn it off, before I try to get into that rem area of sleeping. I am thinking of what are the things I need to do tomorrow, but then what are the things that I need to anticipate and be willing to be a thought partner with my colleagues around campus, too? Because I can't do everything.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Chon Glover

DEI, DEIB, JEDI is not done in a vacuum. It takes more than just me. And I want to make sure I say this too. Yes, I've been here 25 years. Yes, I think I've seen some change and all of those kinds of things, and I'm very proud of it. But I am not going to tell you that it was all me. There's no way. I have had so many partners who are willing to invest in and go with me to do this work, and it takes everyone. It can't just be one person to do it.

Phil Wagner

So that hope for a better tomorrow, what is it? What gets you out?

Chon Glover

Again, I go back, to I think so much of what those who came before me went through. And if you know history, you'll know that within the African American community, there were songs that people would sing that would be signs of hope, and that would get them through. Music is very important to me. And I do believe that a better day is coming. I really do. And I know that it will not be easy, but I try to have faith and persevere.

Phil Wagner

Love it. Chon, I think the world of you. You've been so impactful to my own DEI leadership journey here. Thank you for all that you've done for our campus, for DEI, and higher ed, for DEI in the state of Virginia. And thanks for making time to come on our podcast today. It's always a pleasure to speak with you, but particularly here today.

Chon Glover

Thank you. And you're one of those partners that I talked about that has joined me in this journey as we try to do what we can to make William & Mary a better place.

Phil Wagner

Always moving forward.

Chon Glover

That's right. Thank you for the opportunity, Phil.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend. Leave us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at Women & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Laura Shepherd
Laura ShepherdEpisode 36: January 30, 2023
Ebony and Ivory

Laura Shepherd

Episode 36: January 30, 2023

Ebony and Ivory

On today's episode, we're joined by Laura Shepherd, the Global Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cleary Gottlieb Steen and Hamilton, a leading international law firm with 17 offices located in major financial centers throughout the world. Laura has an extensive background in higher education and the legal sector and speaks with host Phil Wagner about the challenges of DEI work in a multi-national law firm, what challenges befall female BIPOC leaders in the DEI space, and more!

Podcast (audio)

Laura Shepherd: Ebony and Ivory TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • Why Clearly Gottlieb created Laura's role within the company
  • Are DEI leadership roles appropriate for non-POC leaders
  • Why a majority of DEI work in the world of work needs to be done by white people
  • How best to prevent DEI work from over-burdening BIPOC employees
  • What white leaders should do to prepare themselves to adequately prepare for DEI work
  • Why white leaders should continue to do DEI work even when there's no social pressure to do so
  • What steps should young people in the DEI space take to ensure success
  • What effective cross-race collaboration looks like
Transcript

Laura Shepherd

White people can be well-versed and knowledgeable on issues that matter in terms of equity and inclusion in the pursuit of diversity. This isn't a space that black and brown and BIPOC people have a monopoly on, but are you willing to do the work?

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today's guest is Laura Shepherd, who is the Global Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen, and Hamilton, a leading international law firm with 17 offices located in major financial centers throughout the world. Laura has an extensive background in higher education in the legal sector. My friend, it is so good to chat with you here. I know that you're in a relatively new role. We've interacted and collaborated in the past, but can you share a little bit more for our listeners what you're doing these days?

Laura Shepherd

Sure. And first, let me say thank you for inviting me to participate. This is my first-ever podcast.

Phil Wagner

No kidding. Okay. Other podcasters get on this. Laura is great. So get her on yours but okay.

Laura Shepherd

So if I seem overly excited, it's because it's not only my first podcast, but it's with you, and I agree.

Phil Wagner

Very kind.

Laura Shepherd

My kindred spirit. But no, thank you for welcoming me. And yes, I'm in this really new role. I started at the law firm in July. And you know this because we're friends, but totally unexpected and out of the blue, opportunity came to me. And I think that in my lifetime, I've felt like my career has sort of evolved in ways that I didn't really anticipate and expect, but I've tried to welcome the opportunities and welcome the group even when I've been anxious about it. And this was a move that caused me a lot of anxiety, but I felt like it was a good opportunity for me to learn and grow. And so, as you said, my title, it's a long one, is the Global Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Cleary Gottlieb. And essentially, the firm has really tried to root their commitment to DE&I and build out a team that is solely devoted to these issues. And as you noted, the firm has a lot of offices internationally. There's only four offices here in the US. And the majority of them live in Europe and Asia. And this position was an attempt to try to really think about a strategy that was universal to all of the offices but that also considered the differences culturally between even the offices here in the United States and then offices across Europe in Asia. And so it's really a big job I'm learning, but exciting and fascinating because as much as I love living in the DE&I space, it's now allowing me to be more thoughtful about what does DEI mean in Germany versus London, what does it mean in San Francisco versus DC? And so it's trying to create what I think of as a high-level strategy approach to DE&I with some very individualized prongs that speak to the needs of each office. And so the first few months have been challenging and exciting, and I think that there's a lot of room to grow here and a lot of impact to have, but a lot of progress needs to be made because a law firm is a very traditional space. And so I feel honored to be able to have been invited into this conversation. And I hope that I can move the needle even slightly.

Phil Wagner

I put all my money on you moving the needle forward. That's what you did here. And we met two years ago or so. We partnered together on a lot of programming and some initiatives, and I would say the first time that you and I met, something just clicked, right? And we're not perfect, and I don't think we should present ourselves as, like, a perfect case study. But I do know that we have spent a lot of time talking about sort of collaboration between BIPOC folks and white folks who can come together and do this work in meaningful ways. So I thought maybe we'd chat about that for a little bit. What do you think?

Laura Shepherd

Of course.

Phil Wagner

All right.

Laura Shepherd

I love it.

Phil Wagner

All right, so let's do that. Let's start with just entering the DE&I space. You're a DEI leader. You've been in that capacity for quite some time across a variety of different spaces and places. Obviously, white folks, black and brown folks are going to come to or at this work from different directions, from different places, from different lived experiences. Based on your insights, are DEI leadership roles even appropriate spaces for white folks to land? I know this is like a personal conflict I've had in my own DEI leadership journey. What do you think, my friend? I'm going to ask you.

Laura Shepherd

Yeah, that's a deep question. I would say, fundamentally, yes, I think it is a space where white people can reside with some caveats. Right.

Phil Wagner

Okay.

Laura Shepherd

And so in my two and a half months at the firm, I've had to hire people already, and I've thought about this really firmly, sort of, is this a space where white people can live authentically? I think that my answer is clearly yes, but I also feel like it does require some, I'm going to say, a bit of a shift and a lot of empathy, a lot of understanding, a lot of sort of internal resolution, let's say, of someone who may be white and wants to enter this space. What I think it can't be is someone who sees themselves as sort of a do-gooder, right? It's sort of like, oh, I'm going to just fix all the woes of the world because it can't look like that.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Laura Shepherd

I think it has to be somebody who has really done their work to understand how they live in privilege and where the lack of privilege exists for people who don't live in that dominant membership group. So, yes, I think it can be owned by white people, but I suspect that there's probably a little bit more work that has to be done and a little more work to demonstrate their authenticity in this space. And to me, right? What makes me believe it can be done is you. I know you, but you've been very honest with me, with audiences that we've shared about your journey in this space. But what has helped me see it better is that work with you and what you've shared because what I've realized is that you've made it possible for me and hopefully others to realize that, yes, white people can live in this space. And the advantage of having white people live in this space is the acknowledgment that the real work that needs to be done in DEI and changing our culture and changing our systems and changing our structures largely has to be done by white people. Because in most institutions, that's where the power and authority live. And you and I have shared this, right? If we leave the real work of DEI to BIPOC people who then don't have any power in most institutions, then this is really just performative talk, right? And so, you know, that's been my struggle. And my identity as a black woman is sort of like, yeah, let's put these people in these positions and give them a title. And they don't really have any ability to change the culture. They have the ability to do performative work, which I am vehemently against doing. And I think that creates a conflict for people like me that you can't really get to the spaces and places where the conversations need to be had. What I love about you existing in this space is your willingness to be so completely honest and acknowledging that there are experiences that you've never had. But what has value for me and what endears me to you as my dear friend is that you admit that, and you know that you don't know the experiences that I've had. But you've never questioned my experiences. You've never questioned the way I see the world. You've never questioned that my existence may look different than yours. You've always acknowledged that and validated that. And that's what makes it so meaningful because I feel like what you represent for me, and I know for many others, is how allyship in its purest and most needed form.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, well, you're very kind, and yeah, I love our ebony and ivory, right? And I think those partnerships are certainly very valuable. And I think one of the reasons that I've gotten and maintained space in this space is that and you and I have talked about this extensively so often. There's this sort of, like, double exploitative effort that DEI roles often subject black and brown folks to. There's this foreboding sense of expectation of, like, well, yeah, you're BIPOC. Of course, you need to be on the diversity committee. And because we want somebody of color on the hiring committee, you got to be there too. And you're on the party Planning committee and the year-end Audit committee. And so it's just this impossibility of two less-than-ideal outcomes. One, the person of color gets overburdened and burns out, or there isn't adequate diversity in the representation on certain initiatives or committees, which we know hurts candidates of color too. So what advice can you give to organizations you've thought about higher level DE&I strategy? What advice can you give for how to think more strategically about how to spread the load so that it's not disproportionately on the back of black and brown folks or just other marginalized folks writ large?

Laura Shepherd

Yeah, I think that's a challenge. Right. And we know that when that happens that people BIPOC people who occupy those spaces often express that they feel exhausted, right? And it's because what we know is sort of the black tax, but you could call it the Asian tax, the Latinx, or Latin. It's that extra burden that people have to carry because when we want to create diverse committees or diverse teams, if you only have one person who fits that bill, then they get tagged for all of it. And I have worked with people who have rejected it. I'm not doing another thing. It's not my fault that this institution has not been able to create more diverse representation so that I don't have to be tagged to do everything. So I think first and foremost is, you have to think about how you build out your talent, right? If you only have one person who can check that box, then that's your problem right there.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Laura Shepherd

But then you can't make that person pay for the fact that you haven't made a true and meaningful, intentional, authentic commitment to diversity. You have to then go do that in any way that it makes sense for your organization. Right. What are you lacking? Is it women? Is it black and brown people? Whatever it is, then you need to be thoughtful about why don't you have the representation. But you also need to be thoughtful about the burdens that you put on those people. If you don't have other people who occupy those spaces in the current moment, then I think it's incumbent upon organizations to think about, well, then what do we need to do in terms of providing the education and the foundation for the people who exist? Because it goes back to your first point. White people can be well-versed and knowledgeable on issues that matter in terms of equity and inclusion in the pursuit of diversity. This isn't a space that is black and brown and BIPOC people have a monopoly on but are you willing to do the work? I think too many organizations look at those people and think, oh, they shoulder that burden. That, to me, comes from the top. And that's where leadership should say, this is a responsibility that each of us has, and I will hold everyone accountable. And so whatever it takes, whatever education you have to bring, and you and I subscribe to the same belief. Education in this space can't be a one-and-done. We can't have, like, a brown bag lunchtime, 1 hour, and then we're all finished, and everybody's good. There needs to be conversations that are continually woven into the environment, and the accountability has to be there. And if you do that, you should be doing both, right? You should be pursuing more diverse talent in your organizations, but you should also be requiring that the people who currently exist, particularly the people in power and the people who have a seat at the table, know that they're accountable for this. There should never be a conversation that takes place in an organization where people aren't challenging whether what's being discussed, what's being implemented. Is it equitable? Does it consider the diversity and representation of everyone in our organization or everyone we serve? Clients, customers, stakeholders? And are we creating inclusive spaces, practices, language, initiatives? Everybody should be asking that question. And it shouldn't matter if there's a BIPOC person at the table. Everybody at the table should have responsibility for ensuring that that's happening.

Phil Wagner

So having a seat at the table is its own form of capital. It's its own form of power. If you are a white DEI leader and you have a seat at the table, you seem to tee up some important themes here, that there is then an imperative for you to do some deeper digging, some more professional element. I mean, what would you say to white leaders in the DEI space? How can you challenge them to ensure they are adequately prepared to deal with the realities of this work, and what pitfalls or challenges, maybe, should they be aware of if they're leading in this space?

Laura Shepherd

I think that they should be probably prepared for a lot of pushback and resistance. A lot of people sort of poopooing it. And I suspect because, again, I've never walked in the identity of a white person, right? But I would venture to guess that there may be spaces where someone will say something in your presence because they think, oh, there's no black person here, there's no LGBTQ person, or whatever. So I can say these things. I think that if you are going to occupy space, DEI space, as a white person, you have to be courageous, you have to be brave. I think you also have to be almost unapologetic in the ways in which you interrupt conversations and seek to dismantle those structures or systems that we know exist in any organization that serve to work against marginalized populations. And so I think it means that you have to be thoughtful about what you hear tenacious in what you say. And I feel like you can't be in a space, and you make the decision not to speak up because in those spaces that may be all white, you have a lot of influence and power, and you have the ability to provide a different perspective. And so I think it requires having that ear to hear, well, okay, that comment or that conversation doesn't impact me and my identity, but I know that it's patently wrong or that it's going to work against some population. And it is my obligation, it's my duty, it's my responsibility to speak up. I think you may risk losing friends and losing allies because I think oftentimes in those spaces, people think, well, you're one of us, right? And so you get it, and it's just a joke. And so I think you have to be willing to lose some friends or maybe to lose some allies, but in the name of the pursuit of justice, I think you have to be willing to do that because think about all of the black and brown and Asian and native and Latinx, Hispanic, LGBTQ+ people who have pressed and pressed and pressed for years and years and who have lost their lives, who have lost their livelihoods, who have lost everything that they put on the line in the pursuit of justice for these marginalized groups. And so if you are going to be a white person who occupies the DE&I space, I think that you have to remember that these people had so much to lose, and they did it in spite of and so you can't occupy this space any less than that, and you have to be willing to lose something. And I've always said that in this work, is that I'm willing to lose popularity. I'm willing to lose friends. I'm even willing to lose a job in the pursuit of what I know is right. But what I know is if I'm always doing the right thing, that the right thing will ultimately come to me. But I won't sit in a space and allow something to be said or done that I know is going to have substantial or even minimal impact upon a discrete group of people and not speak up. I may not be able to change that outcome, but I'm always going to speak up in the name of justice.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I know we're being overly reductionist here as we talk about white, black. Of course, there are other intersectionalities that make your access point to the D&I landscape, right? If you're a neurodivergent, if you're LGBTQ, right? There are a variety of access points here, but there's something so significant about race for this social moment, this era of reckoning. I really do think this white-black dichotomy is something to reconcile. And as you speak about speaking up. So often, I think that a lot of that can become just very performative. You see a lot of white speaking out, white rage, not in the way we think about white rage, but like rage from white people, about race-laden issues. Post George Floyd post like, how do we make sure as white? How would you recommend that white DEI leaders, I should say, continue to do the right thing even when there's not, like, this social wave that they continue to do day in and day out, those things that actually promote the dignity and value of black lives, not just when it's performatively Kosher to do so.

Laura Shepherd

I think it's what you said. I mean, I think it has to become almost second nature and a part of your daily walk in life. I think it means continuing to challenge your own assumptions and biases and scan the environment to see when those biases and assumptions and stereotypes pop up. It's probably, and again, I can't speak from experience, but I would venture to guess that if you live in a privileged identity as a white person that there may be things that you don't see. I think it means fine-tuning your lens and understanding that while I may have this experience because of my privilege, consciously let me think about how would this have worked for someone who didn't live in that identity. And I think it's something that we can all do. The example I give is in the space of neurodiversity. I have a child with special needs, and what I found in my experience in managing his needs in the public school system, when I show up in the space, they have family history, demographics, they know I'm a lawyer. And so I've never had an issue getting any of the accommodations that I've needed. I think that they just look at me and think, oh, we're not going to challenge this woman like she probably knows more than we do. And I go in with my binder, and I'm prepared, and I have my talking points, and my questions and I'm like, okay, we need to talk about this. And I make modifications. I read all the documents. But that's privilege. I have a privilege that I know other parents don't have. I have the privilege of my education. I have the privilege of my socioeconomic status. I can take off a work to go to a meeting at a school at 10:00 in the morning, right? And so I recognize that in that space, I have a privilege. I know what the opposite side of that looks like. And so oftentimes when I'm in those meetings when they push back on an accommodation, I have said this is not just important to my child, this is important to any child who shows up in this space. And so I hope that this is not something that just become pro forma, that you just push back. Like every child is entitled to this. Look, I don't know if that makes a difference or not, but I at least want to raise that awareness in that space where I do have the floor that what you are doing is categorically improper. And I'm telling you, not just in the context of my child, but hopefully, you think about this in the context of any child who comes before you and any parent who may not recognize that they have the right to advocate strongly for their child. I think that it means understanding when privilege is enacted for you and how you can use your privilege to the benefit of other people. And so I've said in spaces to men if you know that the women that you work alongside make less than you simply because they're women, you have an obligation to speak up. You can't call yourself an ally if you don't challenge the system and say, why is my colleague making less than I am? I want to understand why is that distinction necessary. And what I've said to people is they're not going to take any money out of your check because you asked the question. But you might then be able to say, look. We really should be thinking more thoughtfully about the way in which we approach pay equity across gender lines. So I think you have to be able to consciously and deliberately challenge the privilege that you have in the spaces in which you exist. That has to be a daily walk. I think it's something that is probably hard to do but that you continue to cultivate. But I think I do it too. I only live in my own identity, and of course, I occupy a lot of intersectionality, but I recognize that I don't live in other identities that I'm responsible for serving. So I have to constantly challenge myself and look at things and think about how would this work if a person showed up in this identity. And you have to keep pushing it. You have to know that you're not always going to get it right. You have to be willing to be corrected and to be called out or called in on it. And you have to take that information and move forward and know that if someone challenges me on an assumption that I have, I have to do my work to overcome it. And I can't repeat that again.

Phil Wagner

There's so much to unpack there. Number one, getting called out or called in. Been there, been there, right? I think a good testament to your real commitments is when that happens, do you wash your hands and move on or do you hang tight and do the self-work there? But I also love how you speak of privilege. Oh my gosh, it's such a loaded term, right? People roll their eyes the moment we say it, but I think you just paint a different visual picture there. Privilege is about showing up to the tables that you have access to with your binder in hand. This is about asking, well, what's in your binder? What are the commitments that you bring to the table? And not in that Mitt Romney, like, binders full of women thing, but, like, really showing up and bringing commitments forward, bringing advocacy forward, bringing recommendations forward that reflect those true, authentic commitments to DEI. And I think that then changes the landscape for who can do this work and how they might be able to do it. But let's talk about black or BIPOC leaders in the DEI space. You're a prolific leader. So many people would love to walk in Laura Shepherd's footsteps. Can you speak to younger Laura? I mean, I know you're young and vibrant now, but, like younger Laura, are there things that you wish you would have known as a leader, a female person of color leading in this space before you jumped into this work? Are there challenges that befall BIPOC leaders or female leaders in this landscape that we maybe want to talk about?

Laura Shepherd

Oh, gosh, yes. So many things. Right. I think, first and foremost, I would have been more thoughtful about seeking out mentors so that I could have gotten some guidance. Because I think the younger you are, no fault of your own, but the less life experience you have and the less sort of the lessons that you have in terms of learning and failing and right. You don't have it, and you don't have the ability to cultivate wisdom, the wisdom I have now. So I wish I would have been more thoughtful about really the value of a mentor. I wish I knew the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. I now know that there were people in my career who were sponsors of mine, but I didn't really know what that meant. I know now because I understand the landscape much better. I now appreciate what those people were doing for me and how they advocated for me outside of my presence. I don't think I was always really aware that that was happening, but I do know now. I think also just I wish that I had more courage to speak up in spaces where I knew that there was something wrong, but I didn't know that I had a voice. And I think that I was probably scared of what would be the outcome if I said, hey, that's not appropriate. There were times that I did do it, and you get that sort of pit in your stomach, but I wasn't always sure what to do in that conversation. And I think the challenge is not wanting to attack people but to be able to have a conversation where you try to explain to them why you're troubled by the words they've used or whatever it is that you're trying to call attention to. And I think just having more confidence to do that. I think now, in my cranky old age, I'm not sure that I'm much more competent, but I think the difference now is I care a lot less about what people think of me because I know that with 99.9% surety that what I do is out of the best of intentions and with the best motives. And that's really all I care about. I don't try to hurt people's feelings, for sure, but I tell the truth. And what I tell people in most instances is, don't ask me a question if you don't want to hear the truth. Now, I will be as kind and compassionate as I can, but I will tell you the truth even if it hurts your feelings. Not because I intend to hurt your feelings, but because the pursuit of justice to me requires some really stark honesty, right? And we can't defend and pursue justice if we try to shape-shift around people's feelings. And so I will say to people, I was in a meeting recently where there's a bunch of people on a zoom screen, and somebody asked me a question, and I thought, this answer is going to be a little controversial. And I said to the person, I need to say this before I answer. And everybody sort of looked up, and I said, I tell the truth, and I tell the truth even though I know it might hurt people's feelings. Now, I'm willing to deal with the backlash of that. I take responsibility. But if you ask me a question, I'm going to tell you the truth. So before I answer, I want to ask you again, is that the question you want to ask me in this time and space?

Phil Wagner

Yeah. That's good.

Laura Shepherd

And he said, everybody kind of looked up, and he said, this is definitely the question I want to ask you. So I answered the question. And look, I may have heard some people's feelings, but I always try to give a context, and I try to explain why I believe it's my responsibility, it's my duty, to tell the truth. You cannot speak up for marginalized groups of people and be so concerned about whose toes I'm stepping on. I don't want to step on people's toes. And I'm certainly always willing to have a conversation with someone about why I said what I said. And what I often say to people is what I'm saying is not an indictment of you, but what I'm saying is my thoughts on what is occurring in this space. And if you ask me, I have an obligation to say it. What I'm hoping to do, though, is to prime people for don't ask me questions if you don't want me to tell you the truth. I think our societies, our institutions need more spaces where we challenge assumptions. And that we're willing to hear the truth about what's happening so that we can really get down to doing the work that's going to dismantle these systems.

Phil Wagner

And it might surprise you who calls you out in those spaces. They might be the wokest of them all because you are revealing realities or fractures or fissures that have worked just really well being a skeleton hidden away in a closet. A tough reality to acknowledge. I've been there too. But how do you get there? Earlier, you mentioned what it's like to feel powerless, having titles but not real power or real emotional or social capital. So what if you're a younger leader from a marginalized group, particularly? How do you hold your C-suite accountable? How do you get to the place where you set the standard of I'm a truth teller? How do you self-advocate? How do you get to be bold like you are now? What if you're just starting your career? What are steps you put in place to get there?

Laura Shepherd

I don't think it's easy. Right? I don't want to sound like I have some magical sexy elixir that would make this all work well. I think that I would probably start it. Look at the institution that you work at. What do they say their commitment to this cause is? Right? Because everybody has a shiny word smith statement on we're committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, justice, whatever the words we use, I would start there and look at that statement and then start to assess, well, how do I see this in action? Where do I see it in action? Or where am I not seeing it in action? And then I might take those sort of accounts, right? Here's your statement. And then here's instances where it's not clear to me that that commitment is being lived out, right? And then I might go to whoever it is, your immediate manager, supervisor, and start to point that out, right? So we're saying we're committed to this, but can we talk about this initiative, this project, whatever? This doesn't feel to me like it's living in that commitment. And I'm trying to understand where the accountability. Who has responsibility? How can we get more aligned so that everything that we do lives in this commitment, lives in these institutional values? Now, you know me well and know I've challenged that a lot because I don't like to see language and words thrown around in a performative, perfunctory way. And so I think that I would start there. Look, I acknowledge that if you are early on in your career in these spaces that, there may be times that you don't feel comfortable doing that. I recognize the reality of I got to pay my bills, right? I got to live, so I can't just risk being fired from institutions. Recognize that, and so I think it may be, for some people, a space where you have to tread carefully. I think the goal is to be strategic and to use data as much as you can to support your view. So if you can say, look, I see that we have this commitment, but look at this statement that says X, I don't see how that you can find more examples. You have this data point. Like, I found six or seven examples of where this doesn't appear to be living in our commitment. Can we talk about that? Think about who the stakeholders are, right? And weave that in. How would our stakeholders' internal, external feel if they saw this? How does this breach our commitment to these values and to try to bring that conversation? I think it's important to make those conversations based in data, whether it's qualitative or quantitative, and less based on your gut feeling. Because I've learned if you go to people and just say, I don't like it. I feel like it's bad. People are more willing to write you off, but hold them accountable for what they say. Take that. You said that this was our commitment. You said this is what we were going to be doing as an institution. I'm not seeing that lived out. How can I help us achieve that?

Phil Wagner

I feel like I've heard you say those exact words, and I've seen you hold people accountable. So I can corroborate you don't just talk a big game. You walk it out too. Look, we started this conversation by saying maybe we're not the perfect case study, but you know what? I like us. I like you. I like me. I like what we've been able to do together. So let's talk about that Ebony and Ivory collaboration. Final question for you is, in your mind, what is effective white, black, black, white solidarity look like in the context of collaborative DE&I work? We know that many hands make the work light. How do we bring all of those differently colored hands together, right, to really lift off our DEI efforts and make them something that is impactful, collaborative, healthy, effective? What's effective white-black solidarity look like in this space?

Laura Shepherd

It looks like me and you. I mean, look, I don't pretend to have all the answers, but what I know is I think it looks like what we've been able to do in all of our imperfections. You and I share this great view that we're messy, and we live in the messiness of our lives. And that's what I love about you. I think it looks like figuring it out, being compassionate and forgiving, and willing to step into spaces that might be uncomfortable. We have shared things with each other about our stories and our history that are personal and palpable, and that really speak to who we are and how we've gotten to where we are today. I think it requires that willingness, to be honest, and compassionate, and empathetic. I know that I've said things to you about my past where you just said to me I didn't know that about you, and that helps me understand more about you. It's validating people's experience. I wonder, in some instances, if white people understand that what most BIPOC or marginalized people want is a place of safety in spaces with people that don't look like them. I think what you have added to this friendship, to this synergy that you and I have, is you've provided a safe place for me to tell you my story, my experience, with no judgment. And I can be completely unfiltered. You know, I say this all the time, right? Liberation, for me, means that I can exhale, and my shoulders go down. I feel like every conversation I've ever had with you, from the very first time we interacted, I've never felt the need to be anything other than who I am. As I show up in my multiple identities that, I can be completely unfiltered with you and that there's no judgment, and I can be fully in my blackness and my womanness and whatever else is with you. And that you don't judge it, that you accept me as who I am. You see the value in what I bring to the table. I think it's true. Likewise, I look at you.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely.

Laura Shepherd

And when I see you, of course, I see you in your identity as a white man. But that never enters my mind in the conversations. I never think, oh, I have to be different because Phil is white. Or I do think that in other spaces with other white people. Right. But you have provided a space where I can be fully and authentically myself, fully liberated in my identity. And even if we don't agree on something, we can just talk about that because, again, I know that you value what I bring to the table. I value everything that you bring to the table. You have given me the ability to think about this from a lens of someone who's not a black woman. I don't know that identity, but you've allowed me to think about it. You've also allowed me to understand, just as you said, that white people can occupy this space. And you've shown me how that can be done in a way that honors the work but that acknowledges the differences. And it's made me realize that you don't have to be insert white, black, brown, LGBTQ, whatever to recognize the challenges of how people who live in those identities live in our society. And then I see you and think, gosh, this human being wants so much for the world to be better for people like me. And so I think that in the way this works is the way we work, is that I get to be fully me with you unapologetically, and you accept that, and you get to be fully you to me, and I don't want anything about you to change. Right? I don't look at you and say, oh, this white man with his privilege. No. I look at you and think this white man who has privilege recognizes he has privilege and is doing his everything he possibly can to get people to understand that in the privilege in which he exists and holds, there's power in that, and there's power in your allyship. And I like to say to people that allyship really that's thrown around as a buzzword, right? I'm an ally. My view is if you have to tell me you're an ally, you're probably not an ally. And so I think that allyship needs to show up in a way that is more than allyship. And your allyship, to me personally, in my identity as black as woman is evident without you ever having to tell me you're an ally. I know categorically you are on my side. And I know if I came to you and said, Phil, this is my experience, this is how it made me feel that you were going to validate and honor that and not try to talk me out of it. I know that you would advocate for me when I'm not around, and that's what it needs to look like. And I know that you have always been willing to admit these aren't experiences that you've had, but you recognize that no one should have.

Phil Wagner

I'm incredibly moved on this side of the microphone, and I'm like, wow, Phil, what a gross toss-up to the question that was like the biggest ego boost, which was not my intent, but I appreciate that, and I appreciate you. I mean, allow me to likewise, just gush. Thank you for being you and not withholding. You have taught me so much, and that's not your responsibility. But just by being Laura in this space and being you, I have just gleaned so much from you. I appreciate the collaborative partnership that we've been able to cultivate, and I hope that for others, I see such potential in the DEI space, which is messy, and sometimes it's gross, and oftentimes it's really overly performative, which makes it even grosser. But when you can foster those real human-to-human relationships, you can be full and authentically yourself. You can hold space for each other's pain and trauma and stories, the ones you see, the ones you know, the ones you don't. There's real potential there. There's real, real potential there. And so, amidst all just the racial divide, I don't want to gloss over this and make it all bubblegum and frou-frou.

Laura Shepherd

Sure.

Phil Wagner

There are real issues, but I think we can collaboratively work on those issues together. And that also means sometimes this isn't the space for me. I got to tap out, right? Like not every space do I have to come in and sit at the table or use my voice, but I really do believe in the power of potential, and I wanted to just explore that with you over the last few minutes. And again, I'm incredibly moved. I love you and the work that you do. I think the world of you. I miss you every single day, but I know that you are driving change in the realest of ways. So thanks for taking time to share with our listeners on our podcast.

Laura Shepherd

There's so many thoughts in my head, but I will just say thank you for thinking that I should be a guest on your podcast. I think I love you in ways that you probably don't even know because I think what you've said is so important that you know what spaces you belong in, and you know what spaces you don't belong in, and that's important. And you just said something that I do want to say. You said it's not my responsibility to teach you. I do think it's not the responsibility of marginalized people to teach other people. I think the difference is it is your responsibility to learn, and you have accepted that responsibility.

Phil Wagner

That's good.

Laura Shepherd

I think that's the difference is you've never shown up to me and said, Laura, tell me why this? But you have done the work to hear what I'm saying and to take that and translate it into a learning opportunity for yourself without making me feel as if it is my duty to help you understand. And I think that's the difference. And I would say that for anybody who is white and wants to occupy the space, that's the difference. Do the work on your own, which you do and continue to do each day. Recognize the spaces that you should occupy, advocate for the spaces that you shouldn't occupy, and explain to other white people we don't belong here. This is why they need that safe space. You've done that. And I think it is making an unwavering commitment to learning about other cultures and understanding that difference is good. I don't have to walk in that person's shoes to understand that they have a right to exist fully and authentically. And you've done all of that for me and for others. I think the first time that we ever met was on a zoom.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think so.

Laura Shepherd

Chatting you and saying, hey, let's get together, I knew then that there was some connection that was intended for us. It hasn't disappointed.

Phil Wagner

More to come. More to come.

Laura Shepherd

Invite me back, and we'll talk about some more good stuff.

Phil Wagner

You got it.

Laura Shepherd

And I'm going to have you come talk to my folks about some. But I honor the work that you do. So thank you.

Phil Wagner

Thank you, and thank you to our listeners for tuning into Diversity Goes to Work today. Thank you for tuning into Laura and Phil gush at each other, and you see our friendship sort of play out over zoom. But you know what? In a tough world we live in. We need these relationships. So thanks for coming along on our friendship journey here over the last 45 minutes or so. And hopefully, you gleaned something helpful about collaborative partnerships in the D&I space. Until next time.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend, leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Kelly Galloway
Kelly GallowayEpisode 35: January 16, 2023
Modern Slavery and Trafficking

Kelly Galloway

Episode 35: January 16, 2023

Modern Slavery and Trafficking

Today we welcome Kelly Galloway, the Founder, and Director of Project Mona's House, a Buffalo-based restoration home for human trafficking victims. Kelly is a modern-day abolitionist, a leader on the move addressing some of the darkest and bleakest moments of the human condition. Kelly raises awareness on human trafficking and modern-day slavery everywhere she goes and is directly involved with the Free Them Walk—a 1,000-mile walk that follows the Underground Railroad—which helps raise awareness on human trafficking and slavery

Podcast (audio)

Kelly Galloway: Modern Slavery and Trafficking TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What Kelly considers her greatest accomplishment
  • How Kelly's vision for a better future was shaped
  • What defines human trafficking and modern-day slavery
  • What are the different forms of human trafficking
  • How many victims of human trafficking are there
  • Who are primarily the victims of human trafficking
  • What Kelly's work at Project Mona's House has taught her about healing
  • What Kelly is most proud of
  • How best to factor human trafficking issues into the DEI space in the world of work
Transcript

Kelly Galloway

Fighting for human trafficking, fighting against human trafficking and fighting against slavery, and fighting for the freedom of people is not just a fad for me. It's not trendy. It is personal, as I am a descendant.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today we have the opportunity to take our conversation in a bit of a different direction, and I'm beyond delighted to be able to host Kelly Galloway, who is the founder and director of Mona's House, a Buffalo base restoration home for human trafficking victims. Kelly is a modern-day abolitionist. She is a leader on the move, addressing some of the darkest and bleakest moments of the human condition. Kelly raises awareness on human trafficking and modern-day slavery everywhere she goes. One of my favorite things that she's done is her direct involvement with the Freedom Walk, which is an almost 1000 miles journey, I believe, that follows the Underground Railroad, which helps raise awareness on human trafficking and slavery. She's out there. She's doing the work. And I'm delighted to be able to welcome you here today.

Phil Wagner

Kelly, thanks for joining us. I think I read a little bit of your bio, but that's just a small piece of who you are and what you do. Can you share maybe for our listeners a little bit more about who you are and the work you do every day at Mona's House?

Kelly Galloway

Yeah. So like you said, my name is Kelly Diane Galloway. I am a modern-day abolitionist, activist, and civil rights leader. Out of all my titles and all of my accolades that I've received over the last couple of years, as it says in the last instance of my bio is, my greatest accomplishment is being a servant of God. And I'm on a mission to die empty. And that's in anything that I put my hand to do. I believe that it's favored, and it's a part of God's plan. And so I occupy, and I take up space in the places that I'm sent to. And right now, I believe in freedom. Well, not right now, but I've always and always will believe in freedom for all people, not as a privilege, but as a right. And until that happens, I won't stop fighting.

Phil Wagner

Awesome. Kelly, you've done a lot over the years. You have a very active Instagram profile, and I've been following your work for a while. Tell us where your passions came from for this work. I mean, you talk about this commitment to freedom, not just as, like you said, a privilege, but a right. So can you share a little bit more about I know a little bit about your story and this experience with Ramona that you've spoken of? Does that resonate with you? Can you share a little bit more on that story with us and how it shaped your vision for a better future, one defined by freedom?

Kelly Galloway

Yeah. Well, first of all, we have to address what is human trafficking. What is slavery? Slavery.

Phil Wagner

Let's begin there. Let's define this term because it's really loaded, right?

Kelly Galloway

Yeah. Honestly, I think that sometimes we overcomplicate things as humans because we like to overcomplicate things and seem like the smartest people in the room. But in actuality, slavery is literally forcing somebody to do something against their will for some kind of financial gain and or power or influence. And so human trafficking is this buying and selling of human beings. It's literally that simple. It is the term human trafficking, in my opinion, is a romantic or sensationalized term for slavery. And I just turned 37 years old a couple of weeks ago.

Phil Wagner

Happy Birthday.

Kelly Galloway

Thank you. And as a 37-year-old black woman in the United States of America, I'm only the third person in my family, third generation in my family, to be born free. But what does that mean? Because your history books makes it seem like this happened thousands of years ago. That means that I, Kelly Diane Galloway, born 1985, I was born free. That means my father, Warren Keith Galloway, born 1950, he was born free. That means that my grandmother, Sarah May Galloway, the late Sarah May Galloway, born 1929, was born free. Everybody else before that in my family was enslaved. Even after slavery was eradicated, they were still enslaved. And so I am a descendant of individuals who are victims of human trafficking, bought and sold for labor, bought and sold for sex, bought and sold for medical experimentation and entertainment. And so fighting for human trafficking, fighting against human trafficking and fighting against slavery, and fighting for the freedom of people is not just a fad for me. It's not trendy. It is personal, as I am a descendant. And so you got to think about it. Harriet Tubman died just ten years before my grandmother was born. This is recent history. And so when I encountered Ramona when I was living in a city called Thessaloniki, Greece, working for an organization called A21 run by a dynamic woman named Christine Caine of Hillsong Church, I met Ramona, and we quickly formed a strong bond and relationship and sisterhood because it wasn't any other workers there that understood Spanish. It was just a quick thing that kind of happened. But in that time, I realized that I learned that Ramona was a victim of human trafficking, who was a wife of one husband and a mother of three children. And I remember, unfortunately, when I was in Greece working, I was prepped for this prior to my interviews about just the type of working conditions that I would encounter by working in Greece. And so I knew what I was getting into, but well, I thought I knew what I was getting into. But when I finally arrived, it was a pretty hostile environment in some ways. And so I found myself living in this beautiful country, doing what I love to do, but complaining every single day. And so it wasn't until I had a conversation with Ramona one day, because everything was not always happy-go-lucky inside that house, I asked her, like, why are you always so peaceful? And she shared with me why she was, and she shared with me her faith, and she shared with me a passage of scripture for her that resonated with her. And the way that I interpreted what she said was that tomorrow is going better than today, and two days from now, it's going to be better than tomorrow. And I know one day I'll be reunited with my family. In that moment, it instantly sobered me. And I realized that I didn't want to be a complainer. And in that moment, Ramona sobered me, and she gave me hope. And so that's why I named Project Mona's house after her because it needs to be a place of hope. It is a place of hope, and hope is the only thing that's going to get people going, keep people going every single day.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. And I feel like any time you look at you and your journey in any capacity, that's what you see with how you lead is just this commitment that hope is out there, hope is possible. I want to go back to the definition that you laid out for us because I think often related to what you talked about. We have confused understandings of trafficking. We often think sex trafficking, which is indeed like part of this. But are there other forms of trafficking that we should really sort of put a name to or identify clearly?

Kelly Galloway

Absolutely.

Phil Wagner

Okay, yeah. Clarify.

Kelly Galloway

Absolutely. And I think because of that. I'm happy that you brought that up because education and awareness is the first form of prevention. And so some people always call sex trafficking sex trafficking. But you have to imagine human trafficking as this huge umbrella, and up under it are different types of trafficking. So you have sex trafficking as a form of human trafficking. You have labor trafficking as a form of human trafficking. You have begging. You have servitude. You have organ harvesting. Our two major forms of human trafficking in the United States are sex and labor. And then it's so many studies that have gone out that says, like, even though we cannot prove that organs are harvested in the United States, but that Canada and the United States of America are the number one purchasers of organs sold on the black market. And so United States leading the way, and Canada as the number two. Unfortunately, this is a daily life. This is what happens every single day for millions of people around the world. It's the second-largest crime on the entire planet. So buying and selling drugs is the first largest crime, and then buying and selling humans is the second largest crime. And then on the other side of that is buying and selling of weapons. So buying and selling humans is sandwiched in between buying weapons and buying drugs, which is what creates this breeding ground for trafficking to take place. Basically, we have made bodies commodities, things, and so that's why we say buy things, not humans, to continue to let people know that bodies should never be for sale.

Phil Wagner

I know the statistics are hard to put a finger on, right, because this is often underground. You mentioned black market, but this happens obviously in secret places. Do you have any information on how prevalent this is, either globally or in our nation? Do we have the understanding of the gravity of the problem?

Kelly Galloway

Well, we know, according to the International Labor Bureau, that over $150,000,000,000 circulates within the realm and because of the buying and selling of human beings. And also, numbers are out there from Polaris Project and FBI, and other local other national organizations that say less than 1% are ever rescued. And so if this affects over 40.3 million people a year and less than 1% are ever rescued, we really have to do something. But I believe that most people don't want to do anything about human trafficking because they don't believe that it exists and/or they, in some part, or we in some part, help fuel this industry, and in a lot of ways, we don't know how. So right now, I'm introducing in the month of September, I'm introducing the concept or not just concept, but actual documented studies on the normalization of bodies being bought and sold for different things that they were never meant to. And so that's an attack directly on porn, directly on strip clubs, directly on the sex industry. So those are things that my team and I are really diving into because it also helps to feed into adultification bias, which also directly impacts black and brown people at a higher percentage than it does anybody else, which results in black and brown people, especially victims of human trafficking being incarcerated when they really should be getting restoration. Because they're not criminals, they're victims.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. When we close our eyes and we think about the term trafficking or human trafficking, or sex trafficking, I think it's a lot like what happens when we close our eyes and think about domestic violence or sexual violence. I've done some work in those spaces we often picture, particularly women, young girls, victimized. Is that where it really starts? Are men a part of this narrative, too? How might we think about who is trafficked and how they are trafficked? Does your work give us insight there too?

Kelly Galloway

Well, first, so it's only because of funding that I only work with women and girls, but that is not because only women and girls are affected. Boys, girls, transgender, nonbinary, everybody is a victim of human trafficking. And so we have to look at our vulnerable populations. And so that is really what. I find out what are our vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations right now are individuals who are a part of the foster care system, children who run away, anybody that's in poverty, people that have a past with trauma, LGBTQ plus populations, undocumented internationals, refugees, people addicted or abused who abuse substances. And so we have to look at vulnerable populations and realize, okay, well, they may be more susceptible to trafficking, but this is really a systemic issue that really has to be addressed at a root level. And until we address that, we're going to continue to see the numbers for trafficking rising, especially as wealth gaps widen as more people become incarcerated, which I do believe especially privatized prisons are nothing but human trafficking. This buying and selling humans and they make billions and billions of dollars being there, and they lobby for unfair sentencing. Listen, I can go into this all day.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I'm like on the edge of my feet on the other side of this. My feet are going. I mean, talk to me about funding. So every day, people like me, I care so much about what you do. And as a DEI practitioner, I care very much about what you do. I have no idea how the funding for this works and the funding obstacles that somebody like you faces. Can you speak to those? And how can everyday people also support what you're doing so that we can continue to put money in the pockets of people who are out there bringing about change?

Kelly Galloway

Well, one thing that I don't like to do is I don't like to speak in general terms. I can only speak for myself and my organization.

Phil Wagner

Sure.

Kelly Galloway

And so there are more funding resources, especially federally, that are opening for human trafficking organizations. However, I partner with tons of human trafficking anti-trafficking organizations around the nation. And it seems like organizations that are led either by minorities or by individuals who were trafficked themselves have the hardest time getting funding. It's organizations that largely run by Caucasians and people or organizations that have been around for hundreds of years or at least 100 years. They have a better chance of getting funding because even the application process is not equitable. It is not inclusive, and it does not really embrace diversity and representation of populations who really should be getting the funding. So you have to think about it, especially if you're in preventative work, right? So Project Mona's House, we work on the preventative side and restorative side. We do not work in the middle, which I look at everything I can sandwich, maybe because I'm always hungry, I'm not sure. But I believe like the top loaf for bread is prevention. Like, for instance, we were noticing that a lot of women that were coming into our care. In the very beginning, when I first opened the doors of Project Mona's House, we had women in their forty's, thirty's, late twenty's. Now, all of a sudden, the women that are coming into our care, into our services, into our center that I'm in right now are 18 and 19 years old. And so, what does that tell us? That means that we had to figure out a way to get into high schools and let people in high schools, juvenile detention centers, anywhere that these vulnerable populations were going to be. And then we had to talk to them. I think that when it comes to funding when you do preventative work, not only do you prevent human trafficking, but you could prevent high school dropouts, teen pregnancy. Like, when we run our preventative programming, like our Young Women's Empowerment program, we have girls that are writing books, girls who are opening businesses. We have authors as young as eight. So these people, we're going into vulnerable populations and making them less vulnerable. But when you look at the stats on these vulnerable populations, they're not just more likely to be trafficked, but they're more likely to be single parents, more likely to be involved in crime, more likely to be high school dropouts. So when we do preventative programming, it doesn't just prevent them from being victims of human trafficking, but it prevents them from the stigmas and the statistics that plague these certain populations. And so, I don't deny statistics, but I do believe with the adequate funding, we can change them.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kelly Galloway

And so I think that more funding should be accessible. That is not so much red tape. And you don't have to jump through so many hoops for organizations that are survivor-led, overcomer-led, and minority-led because other organizations don't have to do that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, well, super powerful. Thanks for putting that out there. Okay, so you are clearly somebody who is just bold. You do bold work. You are unafraid. Unashamed. You're ready to go there. I need to ask you a tough question because I'm trying to learn more about this myself. As I think about raising the profile for human trafficking awareness, I think about all that the media has done in sort of bringing narratives to light that we might not have otherwise considered. And along with that, there tends to be now this sort of public concern that sometimes blanket accusations of human trafficking are made by others based on sort of suspicions that turn out to be unfounded. Right? You know this, right? They're are examples of women, typically white women, who issue sort of moral panics because someone looks at their child the wrong way at Target or the grocery store. But also, I know this is an issue of global significance. So you're an expert in this area. I really want to learn from you. How do we think about real danger, real exploitation, and then sort of isolate those instances where it might be a false moral panic? That probably works against the work that you do. Help me out.

Kelly Galloway

Absolutely works against the work that we do. It's like the boy that cried wolf.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kelly Galloway

And so you paint these pictures of, this is trafficking. This is trafficking. No, that really might just be a pervert that really just wants, that might be a psychopath, that might be a murderer, it might be a rapist. And I'm not saying that.

Phil Wagner

Or a normal person. Maybe it's in your head, too, right?

Kelly Galloway

Yeah, it could be that. But you have to stop calling everything trafficking. Everything trafficking. It's literally a headache. So what we did for, I think, about five months, if people go to our social media or even our blog on our website, we did something called Misinformation Monday. We went through so many different this happened, this car seat, this zip tie, all this stuff, like people doing stuff just for likes. Just to get follows on TikTok. At the end of the day, what you do is you cause a public panic over something that really is not necessarily geared towards trafficking. Yes. I followed this one page yesterday, and I was really upset because, as anti-trafficking workers, we have a duty, and we have a responsibility to spread facts and not fear. Now, there are some things that I will say to make sure that you do that will help you be safer. I'm not going to promise that if you do this, nothing bad will ever happen to you.

Phil Wagner

No of course not.

Kelly Galloway

Nobody, regardless if you are a man or a woman, nobody should be walking down a busy street with both ear pods in their ear. You cannot hear around you. You don't know what's going on. These ear pods have noise-canceling abilities, so you don't even know. I lead a bike club, like a cycling club. We have about 600 700 members. And when I tell people, listen, you can bring a speaker, and you could wear an ear pod, but do not put two in. Because you cannot hear a horn, you cannot hear a siren. And I mean, as a woman, if you look at yourself as, hey, like, I don't feel necessarily super safe in certain places, then, yeah, get on the phone if you're by yourself that way, somebody knows where you are, or let somebody know there are ways to be safe. But just because somebody is following you around the store does not mean that they're a trafficker. Trafficking is the second-largest crime on the planet for a reason because it remains hidden.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Galloway

It remains hidden. So now, all of a sudden, your untrained eye can just pick up a trafficker anywhere. No, that could be a pervert. That could be somebody that I don't know. It could be a lot of different things, but it does not have to be trafficking. So I hate when people come out with these stories like, oh, my God, somebody tried to traffic me. How do you know that?

Phil Wagner

So it doesn't really do anything for you. In fact, it works against because then it turns out not to be true. It turns out to not be true. It turns out not to be true. And then when it is true, second largest happening, right? Then what? Then it all falls to you, and then it's a real crime. It's a real situation.

Kelly Galloway

But it also, I think, affects the mental health of it of everyday citizens. So now you have a mother who doesn't even want her child to go out and play. So now that child is inside, and they're just watching TV now, and then all of a sudden they get a diagnosis for ADHD, but it's really just because they're inside. Their mom is not letting them play outside. So they have screen fixation. They have dopamine levels because somebody spread fear. You know, like it trickles down, and it manifests in so many different ways. And then it's the overmedication of children who just need different types of stimulation. And so I want people to look at things in a holistic way, and that's how we look at it here. And so that's why we are very intent and very intentional rather, to spread facts and not fear. Send your kids outside and play, but do it in a safe way. You have ring doorbells, you have pets, you have fenced-in yards, or you can actually sit on the porch and read a book while they're playing.

Phil Wagner

From your phone. Right? Right. All right, so that's super helpful to me. I want to talk about another theme that I think about when I see you, and you're very clear about this. You're clear that Mona's house it's more than a shelter. Your work is more multi-dimensional than one thing. In many ways, you are this catalyst for restoration. I'm wondering what your work has taught you about healing and how we can adapt what you've learned to insights to support victims or survivors from all walks of life. I mean, you've been a healer in your community. You're from Buffalo, right? I mean, obviously, Buffalo has seen its own forms of tragedies in other ways beyond this, too. So talk to us about the role of healing in this process and how you help people who have experienced trauma find their way back to hope and to restoration.

Kelly Galloway

Guy, that's such a layered question.

Phil Wagner

I know. I'm so guilty of this. I asked 17 questions in one because I want to get everything out of you that I can.

Kelly Galloway

All right, so hope is like the precious jewel. Resilience is the blanket that covers and protects hope. What situations in life will do is try to chip at your resilience. Well, Kelly, what is resilience? Resilience is what gives you the opportunity to keep waking up, keep standing up. It is only when that blanket of resistance is chipped away that people can actually start or that your hope starts to deteriorate. And so at all costs, we do have to protect hope because hope is what keeps people dreaming. Hope is what keeps people going and makes people really believe that I can do something in my life. And so I think in terms to try to answer your question, Project Mona's House, prior to me starting it, I had already visited tons of shelters all around the world, like literally all around the world. And I found out things that I thought were beautiful and things that I was just like, this is actually not beneficial for staff or people. Then I realized that I don't want to build a place for survivors because I think that and that is what the book that I'm working on now and the curriculum I'm working on now is that survivorship is not the goal. But somewhere in translation, somewhere in history, we thought surviving was enough. And it's not. And it has never ever been enough. And it will never ever be enough. To survive literally means not to die. That's how you want to live your life every day. I'm just trying not to die. So when do you get to the point where you can actually thrive? When does that happen? And so that's why we say women come into Project Mona's House as victims. They're transformed into survivors. But by the time they leave, they are overcomers. Overcomers make history. Overcomers can help other people heal, can help other people overcome. That means what used to have power and authority over me, I now have power and authority over it. So when women Project Mona's House is not for everybody. And I hope I never ever, as long as I have breath in my body, paint that picture. It is not for everybody. Project Mona's House is literally a program that you have to agree to. And we are not doing the work for you. But when a woman comes, and she signs on the dotted line, she is saying, listen, I want to work on changing my life, and I'm inviting you, Project Mona's House people, to be a part of that journey. This is my journey. I'm just inviting you in. And I'm grateful that you're giving me a place to put my head while I'm doing it. This is not us doing the work. This is we are not the heroes in the story. The women are because they're doing the hard work because it takes courage and bravery to heal. It takes courage and bravery because sometimes, being a victim can be almost comforting. Because, oh my God, I can't believe this happened to you. Here, here, here. And so some people can get nestled into this place of, well, I'm a victim, I'm a victim. But it takes courage to say, you know what? That happened to me. But that's not who I am.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kelly Galloway

And so for Project Mona's House, we have like eight pillars, right, where we focus on, and we believe that that is going to help the women achieve one goal. And our goal is that they'll be contributing and functioning members of society. But it takes sacrifice, and it takes bravery. And we are holistic. We are a holistic being. We are a holistic program for a multi-dimensional being. Like people are not just black and white. Because I'm going to be honest, when I first wrote the rules for Mona's House, Phil, and our policies and procedures, let me tell you how God worked it out. I was just like, oh, yeah, I'll open Project Mona's House. Everything is right here. These are all the forms. This is what the daily schedules look like. Here and I'm going go back overseas and do all my international work. It did not work like that. Why? Because we didn't have the money. I had to end up being the house mom. When I moved into Project Mona's House for that first year to be the house mom, I realized that all of our rules, all of our policies, and procedures were written for robots. They were not realistic. And so we had to go to the drawing board over and over and over again and every three months we go right back to the drawing board. Is this working? Is it not working? Can it work better? And we're in a different place now. We know better now. And so I think that our approach is holistic and our results are holistic.

Phil Wagner

You just give me chills every time you speak. Again you're just so bold and passionate about this message, and I so appreciate it. Tell me, Kelly, what are you the most proud of all the things that you've done? Speak to your work. What do you look back and be like? I'm proud of this. I've helped do this well. I've helped build this well. You've done so much.

Kelly Galloway

So if you would have asked me this question before I got my new therapist, the answer would be different. So if you were to ask me this question like three weeks ago, my answer would be different. But right now, as this date and this time today, I am most proud of myself. I am proud that despite everything that I've done, right and wrong, all the i's that I dotted and all the t's that I crossed and all the i's that I missed and all the t's I never even saw, I'm proud that I said yes to this work. Because I promise you, in so many days I'm just like, forget it. Like you all don't care. I don't care. You all don't want to fund this? All right, well then, forget it. But I'm proud of myself to get up every single day and just keep going because it is so easy to quit.

Phil Wagner

I believe that.

Kelly Galloway

It is very easy just to stop and to quit and to live as to live and not be alive. And it takes a lot of bravery to manage my own personal life and to do this work and to be responsible for more than I ever thought. And sometimes, it seems like the easiest thing to do is just go away, but it's not. And so I think that what I'm most proud of is the radical yes that I gave an extraordinary god to do this work every single day. And so I am at a space in my life where I am celebrating the yes that I have to give multiple times a day, every single day. And so I think that's what I'm most proud of right now.

Phil Wagner

So I have one final-ish question for you here, which is, you know, this podcast, our primary audience is people in the world of work doing DEI work in some way. And as we talk about modern-day slavery and human trafficking, can you speak to those people as to how we can better factor issues like this one into our diversity, equity, and inclusion work in the world of work? Any insights you can offer for us?

Kelly Galloway

So it's the same way everybody that's really close of our life works in that space. And so the same thing that I tell them is I think that number one, doing DEI work right now, is very important. And I hope that they're there because they realize that this work can literally change the psyche of man. It may not be able to change the heart, but you can open up people to new thought ideas and raise up new thought leaders. And I hope that this isn't just something that they are into because it's trending right now. A lot of companies are creating positions for this. But in order to really do this work, you have to address systemic issues that created the need for DEI specialists all around the nation and even world. So until we really get down to the root issues of why are spaces not diverse, why are spaces and processes and systems and corporations and policies and procedures and laws and legislation not equitable? Why are things not as inclusive as they should be? So I think as it relates to human trafficking, we have to understand, number one, why do people think that it's okay for people to be for sale? This country has been built on the backs of individuals who were victims of human trafficking. So it's literally in our DNA to expect much when giving little. And that's not just from Caucasian versus Black experience in this country. It is literally the mindset.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Kelly Galloway

And so we have to address that. Then when we're addressing issues as to human trafficking, we have to realize that human trafficking normally happens to people who are part of vulnerable populations. And so when you're addressing vulnerable populations, what can we do in these populations to make sure that they have a level playing field? What needs to happen with runaways and foster children? What needs to happen to individuals who are new to this country as refugees or undocumented internationals and seeking asylum? What needs to happen to individuals who abuse substances? Right. What needs to happen with individuals who literally just abuse social media and they don't have best practices? And so when we look at vulnerable populations as DEI experts, I would expect for a gift of strategy to come forth and for us to develop systems that can systems and ways of teaching. How can we go to schools and teach DEI as it relates to runaway children, foster children, and children of refugees in a way that's going to keep them safe and keep them protected? What are the rules about truancy? What kind of food? You got to think about it. Like in Buffalo, we're having an issue right now where I'm bringing all our DEI experts to address our school board because you have schools over here that have rotisserie chickens and asparagus and macaroni and cheese for lunch. Then you have a school with individuals from all around the city and county who are deemed as bad children, and all they get is a granola bar. So they're hungry. And so then they have more of an attitude, which means they don't go to school because they're hungry. And it's easier for them to sleep with somebody or to be out in the streets hustling and selling drugs because they're hungry when other kids get to go to school and get full meals.

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Kelly Galloway

And so, why is that practice not equitable? And why is it not inclusive? And so I think it seems like little things like that that make a big difference. And so I would just say be more aware of your surroundings. On Project Mona's House website, once a month minus July and August, we always teach a few free human trafficking one-on-one class, find out about the vulnerable populations, and challenge yourself to say, you know what I want to attack one of these populations, and I'm going to write out a plan. And the people who, lord, I hate that term. But the people who have authority over this or some kind of say so in this plan over this population, and I'm going to present something to them. I'm going to do some real research. And all my DEI training, I'm going to actually make a difference. And you making a difference. You will have helped a vulnerable population be less susceptible to trafficking.

Phil Wagner

Oh, man. All right. That's so good. Final question, but this is the easiest one. What and where can our listeners go or do to support you? All the work that you're doing, people who are listening to this all across the nation, how can they support Project Mona's House? All the good work you're doing?

Kelly Galloway

Number one, go to our website, www.projectmonashouse.com and within 3 seconds of being on the website, fill in your email address. A little subscriber box is going to pop up, and that way, you can stay current. Follow us on all social media, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, and then next week. We'll have a TikTok account.

Phil Wagner

All right. Exciting. Kelly, thank you so much. I know you're not after accolades or a cape or congratulations for the work that you do, but really, thank you for that work. It's so impactful to watch from afar. You've educated me here, and thank you for educating our listeners. It's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Kelly Galloway

Thank you for having me.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend, leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Liz Stigler
Liz StiglerEpisode 34: January 9, 2023
Moving the DEI Needle Forward

Liz Stigler

Episode 34: January 9, 2023

Moving the DEI Needle Forward

Today, we welcome Liz Stigler, Director of the Community Equity Research Center for the Chinese-American Service League. There, she leads the development and implementation of the CASL's formal DEI efforts, including community development and programming in areas that advance social change. Liz talks about what it's like to be out there, doing the work in the DEI space, what motivates her, how she overcomes discouragement, and what everyday leaders can do to make the lives of DEI practitioners easier.

Podcast (audio)

Liz Stigler: Moving the DEI Needle Forward TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

Podcast (platforms)

iTunes | Stitcher | SoundCloud | Amazon Music/Audible | Spotify | Google Podcasts

Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What are some misconceptions about doing DEI work in a day-to-day formal capacity
  • How just being a good person does not lead to equity
  • How to find and focus on impactful DEI work
  • What are the best practices when managing workers toward impactful DEI outcomes
  • How best to know when to push harder in the DEI space and when to relax
  • How to know when you're ready to take on a DEI leadership role
  • What to do when grappling with race and identity elements while approaching DEI work
  • The importance of staying tuned in to local politics and its impact
Transcript

Liz Stigler

And maybe it's unfair of me to ask people to stay tuned in, but I think when you tune out, that is how structural systems of inequity persist and get bigger is by people not paying attention.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real, human-lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Have you ever been in a room full of people, and suddenly the reality sets in you're not the smartest person in the room? This happens to me more often than I care to admit, but it happened every single time I found myself in the same room as today's guest. Liz Stigler and I had the opportunity to take a number of graduate courses together at the University of Kansas, Rock Chalk Jayhawk OKU. She is that person that everyone wanted to buddy up with when it came time for partner work or group work. And I'm super stoked that we could buddy up today for an extended conversation. Liz isn't just the smartest person in the room. She's out there doing the real work. She currently serves as the Inaugural Director of the Community Equity Research Center for the Chinese American Service League. There she leads the development and implementation of CASL's formal DEIA efforts, including in community development and programming in areas that advance social change. I'm so excited to connect with her here. Liz, welcome to our podcast. I'm sure that I've gotten something wrong about your bio. Can you tell our listeners maybe a little bit more about who you are and what you do every day at CSL?

Liz Stigler

Absolutely. I appreciate the generous but totally false introduction. I am rarely the smartest person in the room, and certainly not when we were in classes together, but it's kind of you to flatter me. So on this podcast, yes, I am the Director of CERC at Chinese American Service League. We call it CASL. It's a lot of words. CASL is the largest ANHPI, which is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander serving nonprofit in the Midwest. We have about 600 employees. We've been here for 44 years, and in 2021, we served about 6,000 individual clients. So we're a direct nonprofit service provider. Cradle-to-grave kind of services, right? So early childhood, head start, and head start all the way through in-home care and adult day services and everything in between. Yeah. And that's what I do. As you mentioned, as Director of CERC, I oversee those three areas of sort of our external equity and inclusion efforts, our government policy efforts, and our Anti Hate Action Center, which is one of three in the nation. There's New York, Oakland, and us. And that is made possible through partnership with the Asian American Foundation and that was just launched last fall. So we are still in the first year of the Action Center. But yeah, that's what falls under CERC's umbrella.

Phil Wagner

Fantastic. And I know you're helming those efforts. And yes, there's some well-placed flattery there, but also sincerity in that I know you to be somebody who asks really critical questions and always digs deeper. And so that's where I sort of want to guide our conversation today. You're doing the business of DEIA work every single day. DEI work, broadly speaking, often gets a bad rep. And I think you and I would probably both say that we've kind of dunked on the DEI industrial complex a time or two ourselves. So as someone who's out there doing this work, I'm wondering, can you clarify maybe some of the biggest misconceptions people have about doing DEI work in a day-to-day formal capacity?

Liz Stigler

Yes, we have dunked on it with good reason. I think we should continue to dunk on it.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely.

Liz Stigler

Industrial complex. I was speaking I was a keynote at Roosevelt University's Laker Leadership Summit last month, and I talked about diversity industrial complex. I think some of the misconceptions that I see most often are that DEI or DEIA or DEIB or sort of broadly inclusion efforts are just sort of a nice-to-have addition, right? So it's like a little like, well, we can just let kool aid stir and mix. And if there's time, if we have resources, then we can do that diversity stuff. But that's not the main focus of whatever it is. Our agency, our business, our organization. It's thought of as this sort of like the sprinkles on top. And I'm sure, as you know, that's not really the case, right? I mean, I am fond of saying equity is everyone's responsibility because really it is. And so I see that a lot. I also see, and it's strange because, of course, you want to encourage people, wherever they are in their journeys to critical consciousness, so trying not to shut anybody down. But I see this assumption a lot that the work of equity and inclusion is just about being a good person. And if you can support or encourage somebody to just be kind, be a good person, that that will get us to equity.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Liz Stigler

And it won't. I mean, it won't, right? It's great. I think you should be a good person. You should be kind to the capacity that you can be kind and hold your own boundaries. But that will not bring us to structural equity, right?

Phil Wagner

That's it.

Liz Stigler

It will not bring systemic change. And so I see those two a lot that, like, diversity is kind of like, well, when we get all our other things in order, then maybe we can add in that diversity. And also this kind of like, well, it's just about being a good person. Those are the things I think I see most often.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Okay, good. So you're somebody who I know to stand by some deeply held values and commitment to justice, to equity, to belonging, to inclusion. And as someone who has no problem critiquing the problematic facets of the DEI enterprise. If you're giving advice to our listeners, many of whom are really interested in doing the work that you do. Advice on how to sort of sniff out or identify really valuable and impactful DEI opportunities versus those sort of surface-level or performative or optic opportunities. How did you find yourself into doing DEI work that has impact to the degree that you have?

Liz Stigler

That's a great question. Well, I know I think this is the pros and cons. I think of the diversity industry blossoming as it is, is that there are a lot more opportunities, right? So that's great because that means more space for more practitioners to bring the message or the content to wider audiences. But it also means, as you say, there is a much greater landscape that's not always earnest or authentic.

Phil Wagner

Or consistent, right?

Liz Stigler

Or consistent.

Phil Wagner

Who's not reading from the same book?

Liz Stigler

I mean, this is right. This is just basically one of the things we did at CASL here for the first time last year when I joined, was we did our internal DEIA assessment for the first time. And a big thing about doing that and talking through the results is, like, there aren't universal benchmarks I can't go and look at. Oh, well, nationally, the employee engagement score for work from home is this. I can't look at a national aggregate score for, like, equity. Right. So the metrics are very complex, which I digress. That is not the actual question. That's just my fussing about it.

Phil Wagner

That's important, though.

Liz Stigler

So I think when you're looking at opportunities and feel free to let me know if this is something your students are telling you about or thinking or if folks who you know you are working with are seeing. I think some of the things to be aware of, for me to know if an opportunity is going to be useful and generative, is like, where does it sit in the organization? Right. Does this report to the Chief Operating Officer or the CEO, or the Chief Administrative Officer? Or does this role report to a manager five steps down? So would this role be that mid-level management or that coordinator level in that you have three or four folks in between you and the executive leadership team? And that is really critical. I think because that will indicate to you how much influence you have to really impact systemic change, right? If you're someone who has that reporting directly to the executive team, ideally, you're able to influence what sort of the metrics look like. What does training look like? You can have that direct conduit, even if it's a dotted line of reporting.

Phil Wagner

For sure.

Liz Stigler

But if you're all the way sort of stuck in the middle of a sandwich somewhere and you have four people just to get your idea up to leadership. It is going to be arduous. And not always, but often, I think that indicates that the commitment is either not earnest, like the company's commitment to DEI is either not earnest, or it's not fully understood. And so it could take you the better part of years to move up to wherever you should have started at. So I think that's something I think about.

Phil Wagner

The whole passion project a la carte model is not just problematic structurally. It's problematic for those folks seeking out those opportunities because often those passion projects are going to fall often in an unpaid or service capacity to queer folks, people of color, women, and it just further problematizes the very thing we're here to help address.

Liz Stigler

Absolutely, for sure. I think another thing I think about is how well resourced is the role, right? So is there a budget? Right. Do you, as whoever you are, if you're leading the DEI efforts, is there a budget for those efforts? If there's a committee, is there a budget for the committee? Are folks who are serving on the committee going to be compensated for time? Or is there another sort of flex option there? Other resources, just generally your own professional development, right? Like, are you if you're often if you're a mighty team of one? That's usually been my experience as a DEI practitioner. This is the first time I've ever led a team. And they're not all focused on DEi, right? It's a team of folks working on anti-hate, community engagement, government. If you're a team of one, what resources are available to you, and what's sort of the full commitment there? Is it good, I think, a good indicator if you're looking for an opportunity that's going to be useful? And I also think asking, why now? Why did this opportunity emerge from your organization at this time? And if it's in response to, like, oh, well, we said something problematic, and the Internet came for us. Right.

Phil Wagner

Right. Yeah, the reactionary model.

Liz Stigler

Exactly. Then you're walking into a very different situation other than, like, for example, the reason my position was created, the reason the Community Equity Research Center was created was because last spring, in light of the Atlantic Spa shootings, Board of Directors said, we're tired of just thoughts and prayers. We want to create an actual measurable change. We want to resource it, and we want to really put our substantial long-term efforts behind it. And so, CERC was created. My role, which I came in as the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Accessibility Officer, and then was promoted to Director in February. So I came into an organization that saw consistent tragedy after tragedy right the 339% increase in anti-Asian hate over the past two years. So that was concerted effort that propelled the organization to implement our DEIA efforts. But if you're going into somewhere that's doing it because of a lawsuit or because of sort of internet shaming or because of some sort of otherwise not great publicity situation. It's going to be different. It's going to be a really different vibe. And not that it's good or bad, but I think to know if you're stepping in as a solution to a problem that's very different than you're stepping in as a proactive, you're on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge of creating these programs.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely, yeah. I mean, proactive versus reactive PR is going to look very different. Right. So the same, of course, applies to DEI work. We're talking a little bit about getting people in the door. What about developing people? So you're there often DEI leaders, mentor, shape, guide, and sculpt people who they work laterally or who might fall beneath them within the organizational structure. So how do you sort of inspire a commitment to real change, to real outcomes in the DEI space, maybe among those who are sort of skeptical of that DEI industrial complex, maybe from all sides? I mean, how do you actually shape people so that you're shaping people towards realistic and impactful outcomes?

Liz Stigler

Yeah, that's the big work, isn't it? That shaping, and I think this is where it's useful to draw a distinction or to think about diversity, equity, inclusion efforts in the workplace versus just generally in society because they're different. And your capacity to affect change is going to be very different in one of those realms versus the other. So if I'm thinking about like my professional sort of DEI practitioner hat in a workplace, I think what I think about is not necessarily changing hearts and minds, right? Like, yes, of course, I would love to be able to influence the way someone thinks or feels about something, but ultimately that's not really what I care about. What I care about is how do you behave and how are your actions specifically in the context of the workplace. Right. I might not ever be able to convince you that gender-neutral pronouns are relevant, are authentic, are useful. Right. You might always think that they are absolutely just annoying and foolish and that those people should just get over it. But if I can get you to consistently use gender-neutral pronouns in our workplace, if I can get you to be respectful of folks who use those pronouns in our workplace, then that, for me, feels successful. Right. And I think that is where in the workplace, but again, I don't think that that's socially outside of the workplace. Of course, I want the hearts and minds change, but in just the boundary of professional space, if you can get people to change their actions and behavior and the way that you think that I think that needs to be done. And I think when you see the most successful efforts is that it has to be something that can be metricized and assessed, right? And that there has to be consistent training behind that. And not to just say that training is the ultimate. That's how we get to diversity. Because it's not just training, but it's like one of the things we talk about here a lot is thinking about direct communication, right? So how do you metricize that? What does that look like if you put it on your annual performance evaluation? Right? How do you evaluate if someone is engaging in direct communication from an equity and inclusion standpoint? And then that becomes part of how you are evaluated at work. Right, so that's, I think, a big part of it really trying to change those behaviors, trying to change the action, I think, is where I tend to put my focus. I don't know. What do you think?

Phil Wagner

You know, what I think is that you're speaking to one of the most nuanced and significant issues that we don't talk enough about in this space. You're hitting a really sort of personal area for me, which is how do I reconcile my social justice orientations writ large to needing to be able to move the needle forward within very rigid structures and organizations where that social justice orientation may not fly. And so I think that leads to a lot of imposter syndrome that's one of the catalysts for burnout. It just leads to a lot of emotions for me of, like, okay, how do I reconcile these? And am I making concessions? Am I conceding my values? And I think that's a really tough space to play in as a DEI practitioner. Because obviously, your goal is to push. I mean, that's what you do in this. You push in this industry. Yes, you measure, but those outcomes or outcomes you often have to push towards. And I think to me the biggest thing I end up thinking about is, am I pushing far enough, or am I pushing too far? It's trying to find that balance. That's what I think as I hear you talk about those things.

Liz Stigler

Yeah, absolutely. I feel you for sure. And I think it's, I don't know if this is just what grad school does to you, but I think it's that balance of, like, it doesn't have to be all one or the other. Right. I feel like we're very conditioned to be like, I'm all in doing this thing, or I'm not doing it at all.

Phil Wagner

Right, yeah.

Liz Stigler

And I think it's more of a negotiation around like, well, is that always true? Is that always useful? What can you do that is going to be the most impactful in the space that you're in? And I think we've talked about this a little bit, but it's about creating those structures and systems, right? So beyond just fun celebrations or having a potluck that makes people feel good about Hispanic Heritage Month or whatever sort of these one-off events, right? Having a film festival for Women's History Month, like, sure, those are great, but I really think if you're thinking about creating that impactful change. It's about those behaviors, those actions, and systems, right? So what's the strategy for recruitment, retention, promotion, development? What's the strategy for making sure that the workplace is accessible both physically but? Also, do you have a flexible work policy or whatever your other sort of options are? I think it's not just about having one-off trainings or, like, oh yeah, one time we did a racial justice workshop, so we're good now. It has to be both that training and the real systems change where I think that creates impact.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I agree. I think it's the stuff that you don't put out on a flyer or a poster. It's the day-to-day stuff that is the toughest stuff. It's not very sexy or tantalizing. It's not going to draw a lot of attention, but that is often the most impactful to leading to those outcomes. Let's rewind just a little bit and talk about pushing, if you wouldn't mind because I want to talk about how you have figured out how to sort of read the room. As a DEI practitioner, how do you know? Haha, here's where I can push a little, or how do you know, okay, I need to just sort of step back a little bit. That's such rich, nuanced emotional intelligence that's required there. How do you know how to make those concessions without sacrificing values and how do you know where to push without pushing too far too fast?

Liz Stigler

Yeah. So the first thing I would say is I don't know that I have a good formula for this, right? So if someone else out there, a listener, has perfected the, like, I know exactly when to push and when not to push, I would invite them to email you, and then you can pass it on to me.

Phil Wagner

Share broadly. You got it?

Liz Stigler

Right. So with that said, this is an imperfect whatever that I do. And I think maybe this is also where I see a lot of more inexperience, just in like sort of junior colleague DEI practitioners, come into an organization really excited, really hot, really ready to do a lot of change. The organization is not actually ready for that. They hired this person because it sounded great, and they were excited. And they get told this person right, gets told no at every turn, and it burns them out. Right. And I think that is a disservice that the diversity industrial complex is doing to, especially our younger colleagues, our colleagues of color, right? These younger folks who are coming out of programs ready to apply the lessons they've learned, and they just get turned and burned by the diversity industrial complex over and over. So I think for me, what I think about, I'm a very strategic thinker, so I really try to think about, okay, is pushing on this issue, is going further on this, what am I going to potentially gain from pushing further? Right. Is what I am going to gain either is it a moral, ethical imperative, right? Like, is this something that I absolutely cannot work at an organization if we don't do X, Y, or Z? Then that's pretty clear for me. Outside of that, it's that strategy of, okay, if I push on this, what ultimately am I hoping that I get from it, right? Where is the best place we could end up if I keep pushing on this? And does that potentially outweigh the negative sort of accumulation of top scum that could happen if I push on this, right? To illustrate that point, when I was hired here, my final round interview, which was with our CEO and my now boss, our COO, I told my CEO if you hire me for this job. We're going to have conversations you don't want to have, right? And he hired me. And true to his word, he has, right. And there have been a number of times over the past year that I've been like, okay, Paul, we're going to have one of those conversations. And so I think it's, for me, being pretty transparent and upfront, either when I was freelancing as a DEIA consultant or in a full-time role of, like, listen, I just need you to know right now there are going to be times where I'm really going to bring to you conversations and issues that you probably wish we wouldn't talk about. But we're going to have to talk about them. And so I think I try to strike the balance there between like, okay, this is something we really need, or this is something we should have done a long time ago. We're not yet at a place where is going to be useful or is going to be. We're just not there yet. And sometimes that's really disappointing. That's a real boner killer for me. A lot of the time is like, wow, I wish that we were here, and I really want us to be here, but you got to run or walk before you run. And so if you're trying to do that too quickly, you can end up it can backfire really spectacularly. And I think that maybe is worse. Right. Rolling something out, pushing too far on something that's not fully realized, that people are not bought into, that there's not an affinity for, and then you roll it out, and it blows up in your face. And that, I think, is worse. So, yeah. I don't know. I feel like I don't have a great system. How do you balance? When do you know when to push and when to take a knee?

Phil Wagner

So the only thing I can say that sort of riffs off some of your themes are the subtext of what you say is to kind of lead with humanity, being honest enough with your people to say, look, I'm not here to make you feel good. I am here to push. We're going to have to have tough conversations, but any good organization knows how to lead from their values framework. And so, I only affiliate with organizations who make those values clear and demonstrate how they walk them out. And I can always point back to that to say no. I mean, here, for instance, belonging is one of our core values. Flourishing is one of our core values. So if I'm sensing in the classroom and student success initiatives that students of color, queer kids are not flourishing at the same rate, our values have been compromised. So we need to have that tough conversation. And so, to me, it's not pointing a finger and saying you're wrong. You dropped the ball. This is horrific. It's saying, look, we're on the same page. Let's take it back to values. Let's figure out how we can have a tough conversation to acknowledge the realities so we can make those values come to life. And again, I don't have a formula, which is why I'm always asking, what do you do? Because I'm going to write it down. And I think part of being in this space is not always knowing exactly how to move forward. That's why I get sort of wary and concerned about just the number of DEI consultants that are sort of manifesting themselves without quality training, without deep theoretical knowledge, without training in change management because it becomes very messy very quick, and this is too important to drop the ball.

Liz Stigler

Yeah, that's something that I struggle with, too. Is far be it for me to suggest that you need a Ph.D. to do this work because you don't, right? Like, for sure, you don't. And I think, in a lot of ways, a Ph.D. is not useful or worth it.

Phil Wagner

I'm with you.

Liz Stigler

But I feel like because there is no standard curriculum or training for what it means to be doing this work, and like, yeah, there are some pop-up, like diversity certificates. I've heard that some are more rigorous than others. I can't attest because I haven't personally gone through any of them, but I think it's that lack of standardization or consistency or just like, what is it? When is that label, right of like, okay, I am a DEI practitioner, or I can market myself as a consultant? When do you know that you have arrived at that point? And again, not to say that anyone needs a formal degree of any kind to do this work, but I think I get similarly concerned or wary of, like, are you not only prepared from an intellectual standpoint but, like, the emotional labor required to do this work every day? Right. And to do it on a sustained basis to do it, especially if you're someone who occupies a dimension of an identity that's marginalized, like, to do this work and show up is very draining and really can take it out of you.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely.

Liz Stigler

I struggle with, like, okay, do we need a more, I don't know, centralized. I don't want to say a course of curriculum, but some sort of like, okay, this is what it means. These are the areas of focus that you need to demonstrate acuity in before you can be a consultant. But I don't know.

Phil Wagner

And I'm with you. I have so many competing tensions here, too. There's an OSHA manual, right? Like, we know the OSHA regulations to make workplaces safe. Shouldn't there be something similar? But then I know what would happen is if we had one, probably you and I would get back on and be like, look at these power structures that have manifested themselves. How much money are they making? I don't know. I do think there has to be some deeper level knowledge structures or consistency because I see a lot of young, passionate social justice advocates, and there's a place this is not to diminish that going into this line of work as a consultant, never having been in organizations or working with an organizational change, suspecting that it's just going to be sort of a pushback against a conservative rhetoric. And, you know, this work can actually sort of disenfranchise folks from all sides because you can be sort of a white savior model, and you're not helping what you came in to help either. So there's tensions from all sides. And so, to me, there's deeper theoretical strains that must sort of be invoked necessarily in this space. And so, yeah, I don't know. I'm skeptical like you are. I'm going to talk about some of those identity tensions if you wouldn't mind. So this DEI space is complicated, and it's a context where multiple identity elements might enhance or complicate our work. And I'm wondering if you have any insights on whiteness, specifically. Self-identified white guy here. Right. And I know that DEI obviously goes beyond issues of race, but I have a lot of competing tensions about being a white person who is leading DEI initiatives. I'm sometimes compensated for some of that work. I'm sometimes acknowledged or awarded for that work, and I don't always know how to grapple with that if I'm being completely honest. So do you have any thoughts as a DEI practitioner on how we can sort of grapple with those identity elements and how they might shape or complicate or enhance our DEI work? I'm asking you all the tough questions, Liz, because I was like, of course, I am.

Liz Stigler

No, it's just I was just the audio. But yes, as a white misgender female, this is something I think about a lot as well and something that I weighed very heavily before stepping into the role that I have now. Whether really should I be one to be leading these efforts? I think there are some days where I still feel like, oh, yeah, no, I'm not qualified for this. This shouldn't be me. And then some days where it's better, and you feel more confident. I think one of the things that I think about and one of the reasons I do the work that I do is because, as a queer person with an invisible disability, this work is deeply personal to me. It directly affects the way I move through the world, the structures that do or do not oppress me. But also, as I mentioned, as a white person, as misgender white female, I feel like I am called to the work because it's my responsibility to leverage my privilege in situations where I can do so. Right? And so I think for me, a lot of acknowledging or working through what it means to be a white person in this space is acknowledging that right. Like, acknowledging that my identity, my racial identity as a white person, means that I do not know what it means to move through the world as a person of color. Right. I don't have that experience. And so when I am working on DEI-related issues, I always try to amplify the perspectives and voices, and experiences of folks whose lived identities are different from mine. And when I'm in rooms where those folks are not, how do I make sure that that need or that experience is still at the table? Right? How do I do right by the people who are not in the room? And I also think there's something to be said about white people doing the work of DEI in particularly or predominantly white spaces. Right. So do we need to have someone who's a person of color exploiting their identity just for the benefit of all the white people in the organization? Right. So, no, I think that's a place where, especially if you are a white DEI practitioner in a white space, you have the burden to really pull your team along. You can hold people's feet to the fire in a way that I think when you're a white person working in spaces with people of color or communities of color, that is a different experience. And knowing when you can and should use the privileges, the tools, the resources at your disposal to amplify the work that's already being done is really critical. It's hard. I think also, and I think this is where I get into the bigger confusion, the bigger tension around, like, well, okay, is it all about identity politics? Right? Does it have to happen to you for it to matter to you?

Phil Wagner

So good.

Liz Stigler

I think it doesn't. Right. I think a big part of, like, it doesn't and it shouldn't. And also, the assumption that just because someone occupies a particular identity does not make them more or less qualified to do this work. Right. I know a lot of queer people who should not be doing this work because they're just, like, terrible at acknowledging other non-white queer identities. I don't think membership in a specific identity category qualifies you to be a better or worse practitioner. I think as we talked about that training, the location in intersectional social justice, being attuned to the community needs around you. Those are the best ways you can ground yourself in the work. Yeah.

Phil Wagner

That's so perfect. There's such a succinct answer that really grapples with so many dimensionalities, and I think it really clarifies. There's a space for everyone but read the room. Think about how you're moving about that space, how you're occupying power and privilege in that space, what you're doing with that power and privilege in that space. Wonderful insights. Okay, so four rapid-fire questions to conclude our interview today. Really quick, but we really do want to glean from your insights as a DEI practitioner. So I've just got four, and I'll go through them. I want to know, first and foremost, what lights your fire? I mean, what really motivates you? You talk about this work being difficult. I know this work is difficult. There's a lot of emotional labor. What lights your fire and motivates you to do this day in and day out?

Liz Stigler

It depends on which day you catch me. I have the belief, right, that we can work towards collective liberation and that if we're not in it together, working towards that struggle, we won't get there. Right. And it's a lifelong struggle. The work is lifelong. Right.

Phil Wagner

For sure.

Liz Stigler

It started before I showed up. It's going to continue long after I shuffle off this mortal coil. But I firmly believe that it is the responsibility, especially those of us who have privileged positions, to be agitators and co-conspirators and really doing this. So that belief that something better than this, like capitalist hellscape, is possible is what propels me most days. And a lot of coffee. A lot of coffee.

Phil Wagner

I'm with you. I'm drinking as we record.

Liz Stigler

Right now.

Phil Wagner

Right, together. All right, so flip side. What pisses you off the most about working in this space? Like, what just gets your goat?

Liz Stigler

The whole world. I think it's like seeing that in 2022, people are still using the business case to justify diversity.

Phil Wagner

Say that for this podcast. Say it louder. Yes.

Liz Stigler

Right. And no shade. I understand. Right.

Phil Wagner

It's one part.

Liz Stigler

In this school.

Phil Wagner

I got you.

Liz Stigler

But I think that we are still so far into the research, and we have now decades, decades upon decades from the first compliance space, diversity program, the 1999 Coca-Cola lawsuit. It might not have been 99, but from that place to now and that people are still using. Right. Like the business case, is endlessly annoying to me. And I think, again, we talked about this before, but just the fact that a lot of diversity is thought of as an add-on, or just a thing we can just sprinkle on later and, like, it's not the actual work, it's the stuff we do once the actual work of our business is done, then we can do the diversity stuff. And that is endlessly just pisses me right the f off. Because if it's not baked into the foundation of your work, right? If you're not building equity and inclusion from the go, if it's not in the strategic plan, if it's not in the mission vision, values, if it's not in the core guiding principles, then it's nothing. It's garbage. Right? And so those are two things I think that really annoy me most quickly.

Phil Wagner

All right, so similar to question one. When the going does get tough, you're in the thick of it, and you're hearing all of the business case for DEI, but nobody's actually putting in the work. What centers you? Like, what brings you back? I think that's sort of a similar theme but a little bit different. What keeps you where you are?

Liz Stigler

You know, I think. Right? I take solace in one of my favorite liberation strategists, Mariame Kaba says hope is a discipline. Right? And so, for me, I remind myself that it is a discipline. And so when it feels like there's no progress, when it's not fast enough, when we're rolling back something, we said we were going to do, and now we're rolling it back. When you think that something is clear and then you run into the same roadblocks again and again, I think it's that reminder of being disciplined and still seeing that vision for the future, still having that hope is work. And I also think about if I leave, if I'm not doing the work, then someone else is going to have to pick it up, and like, it doesn't just stop. So those are the things I try to remind myself of. But for sure, a lot of angry car rides home, angry gym sessions, just like real. Lots of getting that out.

Phil Wagner

All right, so final question of the day. You're out there. You're doing the work, the real work, the tough work. Tell it to us straight. What can everyday people or everyday leaders do to make your job, to make your life as a DEI practitioner easier?

Liz Stigler

Oh, yeah, that's a great question. I think not tuning out, by which I mean I see this a lot, and I'm not sure if you do too, but people who are just like, oh, I don't watch the news because it's so depressing, or well, I don't really follow politics because it's just so everyone's corrupt and it's so sad and it's so negative. And if you have the option to not listen to the news or not listen to politics, you already occupy a space of privilege because whatever you're telling me is what's on the news, and what politicians are doing does not impact my day-to-day. Therefore, I give myself permission to check out of it. And I'm not saying compost your mental health at the expense of being constantly plugged in. Like, I'm not saying doom scroll, none of that. But if you're not paying attention to what is happening on a consistent level, not just national federal policies, but your older men, right or older people, your ward representatives, your commissioners. If you're not paying attention to what's being done at that level and what's happening on the news, you're not really being an actionable partner or co-conspirator in this work. And I know that's hard and can feel overwhelming, and maybe it's unfair of me to ask people to stay tuned in, but I think when you tune out, that is how structural systems of inequity persist and get bigger is by people not paying attention. And so I think if that is something that you feel you can safely engage with and have the capacity to engage with, especially folks who may have more privilege in certain dimensions of identity, I would strongly encourage you to stay plugged in and stay attentive.

Phil Wagner

That's so good. I think a challenge for all of us while you remain willfully blindfolded. What structures, what power structures, what systems are being built? I think that's such a great challenge, a great way to conclude. Liz, I love everything you do. I love everything you share. Thank you for bringing me back to good old KU days, grad seminar days. It's wonderful to have a conversation with you here, my friend. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Liz Stigler

Thank you so much. It was my pleasure. Always nice to see you. Thank you for having me.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend, leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Brittany Boone
Brittany BooneEpisode 33: December 26, 2022
Push/Pull: Fighting for Progress

Brittany Boone

Episode 33: December 26, 2022

Push/Pull: Fighting for Progress

Today we welcome Dr. Brittany Boone. Dr. Boone has over a decade of experience in DEI work and is a trained industrial and organizational psychologist. She began her DEI work in the insurance industry, particularly with Farmers Insurance, and was a founding member of the Olathe Chapter of the Black Professionals Alliance ERG in Olathe, Kansas. She is now a consultant with VallotKarp in NYC. Dr. Boone and host Phil Wagner talk about comfort zones in the DEI space: how to push past them, when to push past them, and how to encourage others to do the same. And much, much more.

Podcast (audio)

Brittany Boone: Push/Pull: Fighting for Progress TRANSCRIPT DOWNLOAD (PDF)

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • The role comfort zones play in the DEI space
  • What elements of comfort zones are difficult to break out from
  • How to measure if a person is pushed far enough out of their comfort zone
  • How to avoid diversity fatigue
  • Is it possible to push people too hard and fast out of their comfort zones
  • What is the difference between being right vs. being effective
  • Why it's important to include white men in DEI work
  • How to push the DEI industrial complex out of its own comfort zone
Transcript

Brittany Boone

My appeal to people in the D&I space would be this work is too important for you to not take it seriously. It's too important. It's so important. Like, people's livelihoods. Like, this is too important.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. Today I'm joined by a true friend, somebody who I have known for the better part of gosh over a decade now, and I'm so excited to have a conversation with today. Brittany Boone, or Doctor Brittany Boone, I should say, has over a decade of experience in DEI work. She's a trained industrial and organizational psychologist and began much of her DEI work in the insurance industry, particularly for Farmers Insurance, which is my insurance company. So I'm hoping I get the discount by name-dropping. Just kidding. She was a founding member of the Olathe chapter of the Black Professionals Alliance, ERG, in Olathe, Kansas. She's now a consultant for ValloKarp in New York City, doing amazing work. Boots on the ground. Brittany Boone, it is an honor to chat with you here. I'm so excited to catch up with you, my friend.

Brittany Boone

Dr. Phil. I'm so happy to be here. I'm so happy to see you. That was the best bio I've ever heard.

Phil Wagner

Are you sure? Did I botch it in any way? You can tell our listeners more if you want to.

Brittany Boone

No, that is perfect. That's perfect. I wouldn't even add anything that's perfect. You said all the names right? All of that.

Phil Wagner

All right. Awesome. So, Dr. Boone, here's what I want to talk about today. I'm hoping we can have a conversation on comfort zones because I know that this is something that you can really speak to. Well, I mean, as a woman of color in DEI consulting, you challenge people on certain to push past their comfort zone. So let's have a conversation about comfort zones in the DEI space. First up, can you give us insights into how you, as a DEI consultant, sort of see comfort zones and the role they play in moving forward or maybe even not moving forward? The needle on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Any thoughts on comfort zones?

Brittany Boone

Yes, I have a lot of thoughts on comfort zones. So I think that the comfort zones are the thing that is the determining factor of how far we're going to go. In my opinion, that's what I've seen, and sort of this tendency to want to avoid going outside of them, and we want to maintain our comfortability in all of these conversations. And we can talk about D&I, but if I'm uncomfortable, like, let's get out. That's what I've seen. And I often tell people when I'm doing workshops and things like that, I always tell people, if you feel uncomfortable, you're doing it right, so keep going in that direction, go in the direction of your discomfort. Because I think that's what we all have to do. Because I think if we look at people who are members of historically excluded, which I use intentionally, I don't say represented historically excluded groups.

Phil Wagner

I like that.

Brittany Boone

Yeah, I saw that on Instagram, I think, somewhere.

Phil Wagner

No, I really like that, and I'm going to change how I say that because I typically say historically underrepresented, but you're right. Historically excluded.

Brittany Boone

Underrepresented, it sounds really passive. It's like, oh, they just happen to.

Phil Wagner

Not that's good. Language matters groups.

Brittany Boone

They don't have an option to not be uncomfortable. Like, people are experiencing racial trauma sometimes at work. It's being one of one in your workplace, in your department, on the floor of your building. That can be a lot. And that you don't have an option to say, well, I don't want to be uncomfortable today. You have to press through. You have to adjust. You have to adapt. And so I think we all need to be uncomfortable to some extent, even when we're talking about things that aren't DEI-related. There's the thing the saying that growth doesn't happen in your comfort zone. You have to get out of it.

Phil Wagner

Right?

Brittany Boone

I think we got to destroy those and get outside of those, for sure.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. No, I agree. And again, I love that language. So thank you for clarifying there. I think language is so important. As a consultant, I'm certain that you have many conversations with people that know they ought to push outside of those comfort zones but just haven't done so yet. What are the most significant elements of those comfort zones that are sort of the hardest to chisel away at, to break ground, actually move the needle forward? What are the elements of comfort zones that are really difficult to grapple with?

Brittany Boone

I think that, so I'm going to say this first part, and then I'll say the second part, and I'm going to apologize before I say the second part because it might take us in a different direction.

Phil Wagner

That's all right. Go for it.

Brittany Boone

First part of what I will say is I think that one of the biggest parts of people's comfort zones is challenging their perception of themselves. And so it's like if I do this, and this is what I'm doing, and this is the impact of my actions, then that means I'm not a good person anymore. And so I don't want to look at that. People sort of connect DEI stuff to their goodness as a person, and to there, I've always been this, and it's the Obama effect. They say I voted for Obama, and you can vote for Obama, and you can still do racially problematic things, even though and people don't want to look at that. And so I think that, to me, that's the biggest thing. It's like being able to look at your actions and say, it doesn't mean I'm a bad person. But because racism is a system that we all live in.

Phil Wagner

It's all of us, like even the most woke right or the most advanced people, who have been in this journey for years or decades. You are not exempt from that self-reflective process. It's for everybody.

Brittany Boone

Everybody. And so the second part that I was saying that I was sort of offering a pre-apology for was, as I was thinking about the last few days, just thinking about comfort zones. I was thinking about how, when you talk about age. No one gets really uncomfortable talking about age. No one gets uncomfortable talking about if we have a group of neurotypical people asking them to talk about a population that's neurodivergent. That's not really uncomfortable. There's usually these moments, like, there's a moment where it's like, oh, shoot, I didn't think of that. Or, yeah, there's a moment, but there's not necessarily discussion of a comfort zone. That discussion of that comfort zone comes along with race.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you're not kidding.

Brittany Boone

Only race. Because that's the one where people are like, I didn't mean that. That's not what I said. And I'm still a good person, and I voted for Obama, and my mom didn't raise me that way. No.

Phil Wagner

I got friends who are black. How could you?

Brittany Boone

Yeah, I'm married to a black man. Like all of those things, that's the interesting part is being able to get people to see that it's a system that we live in, and it doesn't feel all the time, doesn't feel great to know that we've participated in the system. But to your point, we all have, like, even people of color. Even me.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, of course.

Brittany Boone

There's this story I often tell when I'm doing workshops because I'm a talker. Clearly, you know that about me. I'm a talker, tell stories. There was this one time I was on a plane a few years ago. I was on this plane, and I had a black pilot, and it was only the third black pilot I've seen in my lifetime. Literally, I've only seen three. And it was the very first time I was on a plane piloted by a black person. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I felt so proud. I even told him when I was getting on the plane, I was like, oh, my gosh. I felt it was just such a heartwarming moment for me to see him. And so I was just I couldn't wait to tell my friends. And so I think I was flying to Atlanta or something like that. And so I saw Park Field, Jackson, I saw the airport, and we flew right by it, and I was like, I hope he knows what he's doing. There was this thought that I had in my head, like, I hope he knows what he's doing. And then I was like, why would I say that? Why would I think I hope he knows what he's doing? He's flying an airplane. Like, he's not there by accident. He knows what he's doing. But it's because I did not see your standard, run-of-the-mill, middle-aged white man flying this plane. My brain is like, that's not who flies planes. And so even me. I'm a black woman. I'm a diversity and inclusion consultant. I do this for a living. I talk about this all day, every day. I live it, and I still have that thought. And so we're not responsible for our first thought, our first thought. We're programmed. We're receiving messages from the time we are born about who is capable and qualified, and competent. We're always receiving those messages. And so we have to be intentional. You're not responsible for your first thought. You're responsible for your second. That's what we tell people.

Phil Wagner

Oh, that's so good.

Brittany Boone

It's like, I had to be like, but I think oftentimes when people have those thoughts, they try to tuck them away, and they're like, and I didn't think that or that's because this, and then they rationalize it, as opposed to being like, wow, I thought that. So let me be intentional about pivoting and say, this is why I thought that, and then keep it moving. But you don't have to. I'm not a bad person because of it. And I think people just don't like that to be challenged.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Your misgivings or your small failures aren't a moral indictment. Right. It's not that you are above recovery, but you can't possibly work to overwrite those microaggressive thoughts without that self-reflection. I think that's so good, and there's so much guilt, I think, slow baked into how we arrive to the DEI space. And I think that's something we kind of have to move to the side because when you push that to the side, you could have those honest conversations with yourself and be like, why did I say that? Why did I think that? That goes against my value system. But I'm overriding messages I've received from family, from religious groups, from the media, from all over, and I've got to unpack those. Not every message is for me to download, but I've downloaded some that I got to unpack, I got to rid myself of. Yeah, I think that's such great insight.

Brittany Boone

And the work can't just be done at work. When you're going to a diversity workshop at work, like, it has just continue outside of it. Like you said, you have to think about what your Uncle Pete used to say at dinnertime. Like, yeah, I work with Brittany, and she's black, but she's a cool black person. Those are the things you hear, and you have to do it outside of here. It can't just be a check the box.

Phil Wagner

Which is exactly what we're here to not do. So thank you for that. I want to talk about pushing people then because this is work, work. This is hard to do work. How do you know if you're pushing far enough? Like, how do we measure? Yeah, I've pushed them outside of their comfort zone. Yeah, I can measure growth and progress, maybe for ourselves, maybe for others, those you're consulting with. How do you measure if you pushed people far enough outside of their comfort zone?

Brittany Boone

I think maybe when you start getting the resistance, maybe that's a good barometer. And I'm hesitating. You notice my rate of speech has slowed a little bit because I'm trying to be thoughtful about this. And I think that pushing people in spite of the resistance, and I'm saying that slowly because there are some people are open to having the conversation, and some people are like, hey, well, yeah, let's explore. I think the resistance means you're going in the right direction. Like I said, I tell people that. So I think that's how you know you're doing it right, because it is going to when you're having to look at your patterns and look at how you've shown up and how you presented, and maybe looking at even where you are and thinking that maybe that had something to do with why I'm here. Hold on, let me backtrack a little bit because I don't like how that sounded. I'm not saying that people are in their positions because they're not talented and qualified and because they're white or men or whatever. I'm not saying that. But in some instances, there is privilege associated.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Parental input. Absolutely. Without a doubt.

Brittany Boone

Your socioeconomic status, all of those things. But when people have to look at that, that's going to be disconcerting for a lot of people. So I think once you start getting that resistance, it's like, okay, we're onto something. Let's keep going in this direction.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, I think that goes back to the guilt thing, right? Because we've, again, slow-baked guilt into our response mechanisms in the DEI space, and people don't know what to do with the fact that, oh, yeah, I had two parents who went to legacy universities and I got into the same ones, or, yeah, I grew up in an upper-middle-class household. And maybe those are just facts. And again, they're not character indictments. They're not moral indictments. They just exist. I think we need to just figure out how to grapple with those better, not necessarily come to those with the perspective of guilt. Does that makes sense? I don't know. I let all my guard down with you, my friend. Like, this is a friend of friend. I'm taking notes.

Brittany Boone

Let me ask you a question.

Phil Wagner

Oh, I like this.

Brittany Boone

My boss did a panel discussion yesterday, and so it was with some law firm in New York City, and I was listening to the panel discussion, and they said something that I had never heard before. So I want to see have you heard of this concept of sort of diversity fatigue.

Phil Wagner

Absolutely, but probably in different contexts.

Brittany Boone

I've never heard that. I guess the verbiage maybe. I don't know. Of course, I know this is something people get tired of.

Phil Wagner

So explain to our listeners your conception of diversity fatigue.

Brittany Boone

So diversity fatigue, people are just over it, especially, if you will, post-May 25, 2020, which is the day George Floyd was murdered, especially after that day. Companies are really looking at it, and companies are focused on it, and we're looking at numbers, and we're doing these workshops and having these discussions and all these things, and people are there's a sense that sometimes people are just over it. And I know that to be true, but I didn't know that it was big enough for there to be a title, like a name of it. And they taught me how to combat diversity fatigue. And I was like.

Phil Wagner

This is something we talk about, actually. So I teach a course on diversity, and we talk a little bit about this. And I think it's really hard to pinpoint one cause. But I think what happened sort of post-George Floyd is that we see a lot of companies, a lot of corporations sort of standing up and speaking out. You, as well as I, know those are very cheap efforts. Most of the time. They are one tagline. They are a 3% donation off of total profits. So they're very sort of inconsequential. But they are everywhere. There's the same reason why Amazon can slap Black Lives Matter on their main web page but then treat union workers in abysmal ways. Right? So this is do say one thing to another. And so I think part of it for me as a communication scholar, I'm always looking at I think there's just so many messages, but none with real meaning, none with real authenticity. And so because it's everywhere, but it means nothing in most cases. We haven't personalized it. We haven't brought the humanity back to it. And so I think that's one of the reasons why I'm so sick of doing another microaggression training. Why do I have to give up my lunch to do this? And it's because we haven't sort of explained the why behind it.

Brittany Boone

Yeah, I like that. And like I said, I just heard it yesterday, and so it's still just running through my mind. And my initial reaction, I'm thinking being a woman in a lot of my workshops, I use a lot of sports analogies. I'm not like the most athletic or sports-oriented person, but I just kind of think I can do that in a way that if a man does it, it might be looked at a little different. But I'm a woman, and they work. And I'm thinking, like, okay, diversity fatigue. Well, if you all would get it, and if you would do it, then we wouldn't have to keep talking about it. We would have to keep having these conversations if we're doing all these efforts, and then we look up in two years, and nothing has changed, and everything's the same. So if you would actually take it seriously and actually do it, then we wouldn't be talking about it anymore.

Phil Wagner

Everybody wants the benefits that come from a diverse and inclusive organization, but few want to put in the real work.

Brittany Boone

Yeah. And so I feel like if we go with the sports example, if I have trouble dribbling to my left, I can't just say, hey, I'm tired of learning that. I'm tired of you telling me to learn how to dribble. Can you all just not play me to my left side and just play me to my right? Because I'm tired of trying to learn that. I'm tired of trying to learn this backhand in tennis. Can you just hit it to me this way, so I don't have to? That sounds crazy. And I feel like it's the same thing. Like, we'll stop talking about it when you get it right. And it's not a nice to have this is a must-have. Like, we have to do this. And so I think that I have to think about that diversity fatigue some more because I'm not really buying that right now.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, yeah.

Brittany Boone

It just feels like another reason for people to say they don't want to talk about this stuff to me. And now we have a fancy word for it, like diversity fatigue. We can't talk about this anymore.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. No. And I think that's really it, and I think that's the real sentiment behind it is I don't think it's actual real fatigue. I think that it is an easy out. David Camps's work it talks about racial skepticism and how it's not really like, I'm not a racist. I just really wonder, could they pull themselves up by their bootstraps a little bit more? Could he have been nicer to that cop? Right. It's the same thing. I'm going to ask questions. I'm just critically thinking. Right. No, you're sort of masking that. And I think that's the same thing that happens here. Right. It's not an illness. You're going to be okay. You're not really fatigued. Take a nap and then get back in the race. Get back in that microaggression training. Whatever you need to do, keep doing the work.

Brittany Boone

Absolutely. Okay. I just wanted to see what you thought about that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it's interesting.

Brittany Boone

It was brand new for me yesterday. Brand new.

Phil Wagner

Okay, so let's talk about this. We talked about pushing people. Do you think that you can push too hard or maybe, like, push too fast? Because sometimes you have this outcome, and there are people who have these comfort zones that are really difficult to chisel away at. Again those family narratives run deep. Those religious ideologies run deep. Those social beliefs, those political beliefs, those run deep. So if you're trying to move the needle forward to actually get to outcomes, do you think you can push too hard, too fast?

Brittany Boone

So I have two answers for that. What I believe is, no, we need to talk about this. We need to be uncomfortable. We need to confront the issues. We need to use the real words. We don't need to water things down for the sake of making you comfortable, making them more palpable for you. We need to no. We need to just address all these things. That's what I believe, but what I know to be true from the work that I am doing is that my boss says, do you want to be right, or do you want to be effective?

Phil Wagner

Oh, that's good. That's good framing.

Brittany Boone

If you're wanting to be effective in this work, you have to meet people where they are. And everybody's not able to talk about systemic racism and how it operates on these levels and how it's baked into every single thing we do. Sometimes they got to start by talking about bias. Let's just talk about bias. Let's just walk you in. I think if we talk to someone who's never or if we go into an organization and do a workshop to a group that's never had any of this or had any conversations and we're not going to start off talking about anti-racism because it's just not going to be effective. People are going to. Is it right? Yeah. Because all of this stuff is still true. It still applies, but it won't be effective. So I think that if you want to be effective, it is important to meet people where they are. Yes, these conversations will be uncomfortable to some extent, but I don't think you can overwhelm people with the discomfort if you're wanting to be effective.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Again. I go back to David Camp's work. I think very highly of him and what he does. And so he says that meeting people where they are is not a values concession. Right. It doesn't mean that I forgo what I really believe or my real values here. Rather, I get sort of intellectually curious, and I ask questions that invite the other person to share not their beliefs but what led them to their beliefs so that then I can start to build community, build connection. And I'm not sacrificing anything. I'm not putting my antiracist values aside, but I recognize maybe we don't start there. Maybe we back up and talk about where did you even get the idea that being color-blind is a good thing. Or that we can all just pull ourselves up. Where did you get those ideas from? And then, can we build community around any sense of shared values to then move the needle forward? And so I think maybe another question here is how do you decide, okay, here's where I'm going to draw the line I'm not going to concede. I'm not going to drop my values. I mean, that's a really difficult thing to do because we want to be right, or I think we build our idea of effectiveness on, yeah, I was right in that situation. Yeah, I dropped the mic. Yeah, I did what I needed to do. I checked my box, my performance box. How do you decide where the line is? I'm asking you the worst, the toughest questions. Dr. Boone, I'm so sorry.

Brittany Boone

These are a little they're a little tough, and I think so I think that my answer would be different if I'm talking to an individual versus if I'm going into an organization. Because if you're going into an organization, I think they will both be equally as, maybe difficult or easier, whichever way you think they are. But it would just be a different approach. If you're going into an organization, you have to figure out what kind of conversations they're having, what is the culture like, what is leadership believe. Because that's where that is, where the book starts and stops is leadership. And so a lot of times, people want to do this diversity stuff, and they want to diversity stuff. You all can't see my air quotes diversity stuff, but people come in, and they want to start at the middle. So the leadership, we're too busy to talk about that, and we won't have time. So can you all, can you all do that? And so then the middle is supposed to start it, but nobody cares if it's coming from the middle. It has to come from the top. And so it's figuring out, is there a leadership buying in? What is the culture like? What are the demographics of the organization? Because then maybe I can start a little bit further. If they've had these conversations before, if they're starting from scratch and it's a company that has two people of color and 92% of the people are white men, straight, heterosexual white men, that's going to be a different starting place. If I'm talking to an individual, you can sort of ask questions, and then it's important to then try to validate. And, like you said, validating. And validating doesn't mean that you agree. I don't have to agree with what you're saying, but I can see you. I can signal to you that I see, and I see why you might feel that way. I see why you might feel like giving these people jobs means fewer jobs for you. I can see that. But let me explain to you why it's not a zero-sum game. So I think it's sort of knowing your audience. I guess I said the long-winded version of it.

Phil Wagner

No, it's so good. And again, that fits very much within how I see this work, too, right? When you say, well, if people of color would just work harder, their economic situation would improve, okay, I cannot get there. But where I can get is this sort of shared idea we might have that within the overall economic equation, there is some individual effort that does factor in. I was going to look differently among different groups who have different level of access, but there's a nugget of truth in there that we can sort of maybe both agree on, even if different ways. That allows us to then move the needle forward. And another person whose work I'm a big fan of is Donna Hicks and her work on dignity. And I think if you really want to move the needle forward, you have to afford dignity to the other person you're in conversation with. Otherwise, you're kind of guilty of the same things that you preach against, right? You're looking down your nose at people, and that's not really the goal here. Again, I go back to this is about building community and moving people forward, and that might look different for each individual person. So it's not a values concession, but it's individualized, and that's what makes this diversity work with air quotes really difficult.

Brittany Boone

And I think you just said something that resonated with me, and I think it's something else that's important is bringing in white men, like bringing them into the conversation. I do a lot of when we're prepping to go into a client, sometimes we do interviews, and we'll talk to just a handful of people from the organization just to see culture, what things are working well, areas of opportunity, all that stuff. And so sometimes you'll be talking to a white man, and maybe it's a white man who's on a D&I committee and those types of things, and he's like, well, I just always feel like there's sort of this feeling like they can't be the ones that talk, and they can't be the people that they can't be the voice. And I don't know about this, so I would defer to someone else. And while the sentiment behind that is good because that's part of allyship, you don't want to come in like the night in shining armor and feel like saviors. However, there is something to working with white men who feel like this work is important and who talk about it and don't let all the people of color and all the women in your workplace carry this by themselves because in order for it to move you all have to think it's important too. And so just bringing in white men, sometimes white men feel like I'm not diverse. This isn't for me. But it is. It's for all of us because everyone is diverse. We're all these things. And I think it's important to that is an important piece is making sure that people know it is for everyone. It impacts all of us.

Phil Wagner

And this goes back to the comfort zone. All on my vulnerabilities, here I am if you can't tell super white guy in the DEI space. I have had DEI leadership positions. Paid leadership positions. And I have had to do that self-work too. It's something I haven't ever found the answer on of how much space should I be occupying and how much space should I not be occupying. And I carry a lot of sort of comfort zone tensions there too. I believe in this work. I will do this work constantly. But when it comes to then having space with really impact, I struggle. There's a lot here. I don't want to just throw it to all the women of color or people of color or LGBTQ folks just because that makes sense, and that's what often gets done. So I think this is just about being reflective and saying, no, I'm working through the tensions, and maybe that's okay. Right.

Brittany Boone

And just talk, verbalizing it like you just did. Like saying, hey, this feels weird for me as a white guy to do this. What makes you comfortable with this? Because I want your voice to be heard. But also, we have my team that I work with at ValloKarp. We have three black women. We have one Latino male, and then we have one white guy. I said white guy, like I said, guy different in it. So we talk about sometimes the messenger versus the message. And sometimes, when we go into certain settings, if we're in a law firm like the super conservative, there are certain things that will sound better coming from the white man. It will not sound better be more effective.

Phil Wagner

Because it's not seen as, like, self-preservation.

Brittany Boone

Exactly.

Phil Wagner

Right. Oh, you're just saying that because you're black, and this benefits you. Yeah. No, it makes total sense.

Brittany Boone

And that's how you can use your identity, and that's helpful. So sometimes, it might have to be your voice.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. I think it's just looking at the realities of where the DEI equation is. We're talking about pushing people out of their comfort zones and towards the DEI industry and what the DEI industry does. But you and I have done this work and talked about this work for a while. We publish on this work. We've been in this work. And I think we're coming to this from the other side, where we may now be looking back at the DEI industrial complex with a little bit of skepticism because that has sort of become something that I don't think it was ever really meant to be. Right. I mean, you know, like the history, like, post title seven, when organizations got more diverse, and they were like, oh, shoot, now we need to make sure we tend to this diverse workforce. And then from there, things kind of moved out of HR and into the hands of DEI consultants, and you are one. This is not delegitimizing that you do such important work, but, you know, because you are one. For every good one, there are ten bad ones who are not qualified or who may be moving the needle the other way. And so this DEI industry has gotten. Yeah, exactly. So how do we push the DEI industry out of its comfort zone to keep it accountable, to make sure that we're pushing in the right places, we're consistent in our message? We're not just settling for a check-the-box template from this other side. How do we push this industry, this industrial complex, to do this work and to do it well?

Brittany Boone

That's something I struggle with because not literally, like, day to day, I struggle with it, but in thinking about it, I struggle with it because you're sort of fighting against dollars. And how do you measure against dollars? You know what I mean? Especially, like you said after Title Seven, but even like we said after George Floyd, all these people popping up. And then the firm that I work for has been around for 20 years. And so there are even some people when we're asking, we're potentially talking to new clients or potential clients, rather, they ask us about our pricing, and they're like, so is this sort of this idea that maybe we've hiked our prices up since George Floyd got murdered? Because there are people doing that.

Phil Wagner

No kidding.

Brittany Boone

I just think that my appeal to people in the D&I space would be this work is too important for you to not take it seriously. It's too important. It's so important. Like, people's livelihoods. It's too important. And so I don't know, other than that, how to go against the money that people are making because that's what has happened. People saw a niche for it, and they're like, oh, I'm a person of color, and I can go in here and do this, and I can just do this, check the box and get this done.

Phil Wagner

I mean, it's also white people. You look at the number of white consultants in this space, which, again, everybody has a unique access point. And I'm not here to call out people and say you're a real one. You're not. That's not what I'm saying at all. But there's a lot of junk out there, right? I mean, there's a lot of stuff that is just settling for status quo and nothing more. And I love that appeal, again, bringing it back to a central, bringing it back to humanity, bringing it back to dignity. There is too much at stake here to settle for just a check-the-box format.

Brittany Boone

And when I first started doing this work, I found I would get really nervous. Before, like, if I had a group that was all white people, I'm like, I'm going here and talk about, this is nothing. But when I would have a group that had, like, a large number of people of color, I got more nervous. And I had to really like, why am I so nervous? And it's because these are the people that this impacts, and I need to get this right. And I don't want them. I'm in this room, and I have a voice. I have a level of power in this room that they don't have because I remember being in that workspace and coming in and looking at the art on the walls, and it's all white men, and I remember that, and I remember trying to bring it up and getting in trouble and getting told that. I remember that. And so, since I have a voice in this room, I need to make sure that I talk about this in a way that these people in this room will be satisfied. I don't want them walking out of here being like, See, she missed it. I don't want that. And I think that maybe that would be how I answer that question. What would the most oppressed person in this room say about what you just said? Would they agree? Would they feel that it was helpful? Did you help them? And maybe that's the measure.

Phil Wagner

And if everybody in every capacity would just take on that orientation, the ones who are impacted the most by this, what will they walk out thinking, feeling, doing, believing about themselves or their roles in this organization? If you would just take that orientation, that's a good communication orientation. That's not even DEI work. That's just being a good communicator and thinking about your audience. And so I think it's so simple, but obviously so difficult to actually put into practice. I got one final question for you. All right, so we're talking about comfort zones, and I want to know, as a DEI consultant who has done this work, written on this work, is in it every single day, what do you do to push yourself outside of your comfort zone? And can you offer suggestions to our listeners for how they can intentionally step out of theirs?

Brittany Boone

So my comfort zone, it's a little different because I grew up like, my mom would always talk to me about racial equity and racism and how it showed up. So race was my in to this work. And then being a black woman whose experience of growing up in the Midwest, like, you know that. And so the things I've heard, the things I've seen as a kid, I always want to confront it head-on. So for me, the challenge, the area for growth for me, has been what we just talked about a moment ago with regard to finding the commonality and not going in like a bulldozer and trying to steamroll over everything. And it's being able to hear people so that I can be more effective. Because I think that there are, like we were saying earlier, there are different styles of consulting that you have out there. You have some people that go in, and they're really like, check the box. Like, we're just going to do this. But then you have some people that go in, and they're like balls to the wall if you will, and they're like, hey, no, that is racist, and that doesn't necessarily resonate with every group well. And so being able to dial it back and being able to be fluid in my approach, even if I really disagree with something that somebody said, and I really feel strongly about that, really learning to be more effective by being fluid in my approach has been my biggest learning point. And I'm still a work in progress on that.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, you and me both. But that's intellectual maturity, right? I mean, I think a lot of the critiques of DEI work are really sort of self-appointed white allies who have done just that. I'm going to check my own box. Look at how, like, yeah, I can shut you down and walk away and wash your hands, and nothing happens to the systemic oppression that you're, quote, unquote, trying to address. Right. You have not made life better for anybody except yourself because you feel good right now. That doesn't actually lead. You patted yourself on the back, and you moved right along, and you don't have to think about this anymore, and you might have made the situation worse because that person you are, quote, unquote, trying to change, is now more emboldened. See, I can't satisfy anybody, but you know what I mean? So there's an intellectual maturity that I think this requires, and I think that really goes back to where we started today, which is on comfort zones to get out of them, it requires, I think, higher order skills.

Brittany Boone

That's what I would suggest to people. It's just being able to be don't just have one approach. Develop multiple approaches so that you can be effective with any group that you're confronted with. Confronted is a very confrontational word. Any group that you are presented with be effective with them. Be willing to adapt, and don't require everyone to come to you. And that's something we tell. We're doing inclusive leadership seminars and everything, so practicing what I preach, even in this work, is important.

Phil Wagner

And it's harder than what people might think, isn't it, to practice what.

Brittany Boone

Man.

Phil Wagner

I know it.

Brittany Boone

It is.

Phil Wagner

Dr. Brittany Boone. Gosh, to say it's a privilege is just a monumental understatement. I have been looking forward to this conversation forever. I am so excited. I love watching what you're doing. You're doing such important work. Thanks for sharing some of that work with us today. A true privilege, my friend.

Brittany Boone

Thank you, Dr. Phil. So people want to know when you're having me back, so just make sure.

Phil Wagner

People, yeah, I see that. Right. They've already written as this. You're coming back for sure. For sure. What a great conversation. Thank you.

Brittany Boone

Thank you.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend, leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts, and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

More Podcast Episodes

 Sarah Cordivano
Sarah CordivanoEpisode 32: December 19, 2022
Impossible Work: Why DEI Programs Fail

Sarah Cordivano

Episode 32: December 19, 2022

Impossible Work: Why DEI Programs Fail

Today on the show, we welcome Sarah Cordivano—the head of D&I Strategy and Governance at Zalando. She is an expert in data analytics, helping to implement impactful, data-driven DEI work. She is also a professional speaker and writer, and her recently published book "Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: How to Succeed at an Impossible Job" was released by Impossible Press in July of 2022. She currently resides in Berlin.

More about Sarah Cordivano

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • How Sarah found a career path towards DEI work
  • What Sarah means by "DEI is an impossible job"
  • Why some corporate DEI initiatives fail
  • The importance of executive-level buy-in when implementing a DEI program
  • How much budgetary constraints impact DEI work
  • What are the hidden costs of a DEI strategy
  • Why companies should pursue DEI work even in an economic downturn
  • How to make sure DEI work is impactful
  • How to take a western-centric DEI mindset and translate it globally
Transcript

Sarah Cordivano

That is power. Having control over how money is spent is where power lies. And I think, for me, that's one of the motivators because we can do a lot of grassroots, individual-level work. But if we're not actually changing how money is spent, then there's a limit to what we can do, right?

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work, the podcast where we center real human lived experiences that shape and define our DEI leadership. I'm joined today by Sarah Cordivano, who works as the head of D&I Strategy and Governance at Zalando. She brings along expertise in data analytics to help implement impactful data-driven DEI work. She's also a professional speaker and a writer, and particularly happy to announce her recently published book, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion How to Succeed at an Impossible Job, which is definitely going to be the feel and the flavor of today's conversation, something we've talked about a lot already on many of our episodes. Sarah is from Philly. She's currently living in Berlin. She's got a great story and some great insights for us today. Sarah, welcome to our podcast. It is an honor to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

Sarah Cordivano

Thanks, Phil. I'm so glad to be here.

Phil Wagner

So let's just kick things off and start with maybe a little bit of your story. Can you tell our listeners how you found your way into DEI work and then to Berlin?

Sarah Cordivano

Sure. So I have a pretty nonlinear career path, so I actually originally studied geography and urban studies, and my first career was in tech and data and mapping spatial data. So I was working with geographic data and maps, and that actually gave me a very interesting taste on how access to resources and opportunities are not equally distributed around the world. And my first taste of what equity is. And eventually, years later in my career, I decided to move to Berlin to just try something new. And that gave me the opportunity to get involved with employee resource groups at the company where I worked. And eventually, that transitioned into working in DEI full-time. And that's a very short story of a much longer a longer story. But I will mention one thing, which is the data side, which has been a huge asset to me as I've developed my career and figured out how to do successful DEI work.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's fantastic. Do you think it's the data that opened up the door? Do you think it's passions and, sort of like, proficiency in this language that opened up the door? Was it a coupling? I mean, that's a really nice pathway, and I see how that makes sense, but it's something I think you probably had to push on a few doors to make that happen, right?

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, I think it was a combination of the community work, so getting involved with ERGs and getting really interested in how community work together can change businesses and then also having a strong core of data analytics skills and project management helped me be really effective in the work that I was doing.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. So let's talk about the book. I'm really, really excited about this book, particularly just because of the title, because we know that this is important work to do. But we've talked about it time and time again on the show. This is difficult work to do. I mean, even if you have maybe the identity push to do this work, this is something that impacts your community. You have the passion to do this work because you see social injustice all around you. It really doesn't matter your access point. At some time or another, you're going to get frustrated. You're probably going to get burned out. There's good data to support this. So you own that. Your book is called how to Succeed at an Impossible Job. So what do you even mean? Like, from your context, from your lens, what do you mean by DEI being an impossible job?

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, so thanks for asking me that because I know that the title is a bit provoking, but I wanted it to be that way. And what I mean is, it's not. I don't mean that it's impossible to do really fantastic impactful DEI work. Actually, quite the opposite. I mean that it's often impossible to achieve all the things that we want in our DEI work. And why is that? The expectations we have for the role typically don't always live up to the reality of what we can actually accomplish, especially considering what resources and commitment we have available from the organization we work in. And oftentimes, when organizations hire their first DEI role, they have all these expectations about what that role is going to do, but they haven't given them any resources, any budget. They haven't positioned that role within the organization to actually have influence, and all of that and the expectations we have on ourselves, the expectations other people have for us, really makes it impossible to fulfill all those expectations. But what I try to do in the book is talk about if we really understand the situation that we're in, understand the limitations, understand what levers we can pull, then we can actually reset those expectations and actually do really fantastic work.

Phil Wagner

What I love when you open up the first chapter and you talk about this being an impossible position, one of the things you mentioned that I think we don't talk about enough is the emotional labor too. That's part of what makes this impossible, you argue, is that all of those the misalignment of expectation that adds up over time to create this sort of emotional burden. And I think that emotional labor disproportionately impacts often folks of color, women, LGBTQ folks, and other historically underrepresented or minoritized communities. And I think that's a really important conversation to have because it riffs on themes you set later in the book on mental health and wellness too.

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, absolutely. I think you summed it up quite well. So I don't know if I have anything to add to it. But I think, in general, a lot of people get into this job, and they have this utopian vision of what it will be like. And they feel like they'll finally be able to do that grassroots work that they want to, that they are driven to do. But in reality, it's often much more boring than that. It's change management, influence, communication. We feel like sometimes that we're shortchanging our communities, and that can be a really difficult realization to have.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, that's so good. Making those, I don't know if they're concessions. Right? But I think that also presents just really interesting issues for DEI practitioners to grapple with. Do I have to concede some of, maybe, my social justice-anchored desired outcomes to achieve real change in my organization? And that can lead to some really tough, I think, self-dialogue. Let's move on beyond that because we're going to come back to some of those themes towards the end of today. I want to talk you talk quite significantly about why DEI programs and DEI work fails oftentimes in organizations. Can we own some of those failures here today? Maybe put out on the table some of the things that we should be watching out for in our own organizations to make sure our DEI work doesn't fail.

Sarah Cordivano

Absolutely. And let me speak on behalf of my own experience of working in DEI in Europe, which is, you know, different from the States and other areas.

Phil Wagner

Quite different.

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah. So in the past two years, you know, we've seen a lot of companies hire their first DEI role. And I think that there's probably a lot of internal debate and discussion and pain that went into that ultimate decision to hire that first role. And I think companies often see hiring the DEI role as the solution, as the fix to the problem that they had. And I'm oversimplifying, but I'm also speaking from experience of speaking to organizations, and in reality, we know that it's not actually the solution. It's the very, very early start of a much longer solution that requires a lot of commitment. So with that is sort of the backdrop, let's talk about why DEI work fails. I think one of the biggest things I'd mention is the lack of executive-level buy-in and endorsement. So you've got a DEI role, maybe you've got a whole team, but they're buried somewhere in human resources. They are reporting to someone who doesn't really have familiarity with DEI. There's five levels of hierarchy between that team and the executive-level leadership. And when those teams are siloed within HR, it's really easy for everyone around them to perceive this as, oh, that's just the HR topic, just like a different HR topic, just like talent acquisition, it just belongs in HR. And it's really difficult for this to be perceived as a strategic business topic. So I think that can be one of the biggest ways to fail because everyone around you does not perceive this as a critical business topic. And then, when your organization is making business decisions, they don't bring DEI into it. And there's so many cautionary tales around situations where the DEI team is doing really fantastic work, but business decisions or some other external force undermines that work.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, absolutely.

Sarah Cordivano

And then I'll keep it short because there's so many ways to fail, and I'll encourage you to check out the book to find out more reasons. But another thing I'll mention is working without a strategic focus. So we know that there's so many DEI topics to focus on. And as a DEI professional, you get requests and urgent emails all the time. And if you don't have that strategy, that's always your North Star. It's really difficult to stay focused because you constantly are reacting, and it can be really difficult to actually achieve anything because you're not actually putting all your energy into one direction. And then lastly, I'll mention, and I bring up, the data theme, as you mentioned in the beginning, but when we're not using data to understand the baseline where we're starting from as an organization, we don't know where we're going. And we need that data to understand whether the initiatives that we're doing, we're investing our time and energy in, are actually having the impact that we want. And this is huge. I mean, I think so many DEI strategies are based on assumptions or anecdotes or low-hanging fruit, let's say. And I think it's really important to actually figure out whether the work that we're doing is having an impact. I mean, this is what we're trying to achieve, right? And at the same time, when you are able to say whether your work is having an impact, you're able to recognize progress, and that keeps you motivated. So those two things sort of fit into each other.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, they do. In your work, you talk about also stepping back to assess. Do I even have the power to drive change in this area? And I think that that's a really important thing to step back and ask too. That has to do with those organizational hierarchical structures. But I also think that it also lends itself well to a self-analysis of how do people see me as a DEI leader, a practitioner within the organizations. You have this really brief paragraph, but I love it because you could probably write a whole work on misconceptions that people have of DEI officers or DEI teams, right? That they're going to come in and be the language police, or they're a grievance conduit, or they're trying to gather all of the anecdotes, as you say, and be a personal champion. But those misconceptions can often get in the way of the very impactful work that you're speaking to here.

Sarah Cordivano

I completely agree. I would say that's very true. And I think one of the most powerful things someone in a DEI role can do is be an influence to decision-makers. That can be awkward because sometimes those people are several levels above you. But at the same time, we can't change an organization from the grassroots level only. We really need that influence from the top down. And yeah, that's what it takes.

Phil Wagner

So from the top down comes a lot, comes support. And one of the primary mechanisms of support I think you need in DEI but don't often see, I would argue, is budget, budgetary authority, the ability to spend dollars because this work is not free work. It costs money to do this work well. Right. So I'm wondering, can you speak to some of the budgetary issues? I think this is, again, a theme that we have ripped on a few times in many of our episodes, that there's these lofty expectations, those utopian goals, as you talked about earlier, but then they're like, top-down leadership might be all right, go get it done, good luck. And there's no budgetary commitment. So I'm wondering if you can speak to budget here.

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, for sure. It's really interesting because I get this question a lot. How much should our DEI budget be? Like, how much should our organization spend? And I actually challenge this question a lot because I say in many ways budget is the cheapest thing, the most inexpensive thing you will put behind your DEI work. There's a lot more expensive costs that are hidden in a successful DEI strategy.

Phil Wagner

Like what?

Sarah Cordivano

Great question. So I think that the number one, most important one is executive sponsorship. And let me tell you why this has a cost. So the time of an executive is finite, right? They are very high paid individuals with huge demands on their time. So if they're spending time championing your DEI work, they're not doing something else. And if they're spending time educating themselves and being available at short notice on DEI topics, then that takes their focus from something else. But at the same time, that is a very necessary thing that we need, and it does have an actual cost. On the other hand, or in addition, I would say ranking DEI as a strategic priority also has a cost because it means we're deprioritizing something else. And that could be if we have a big expansion for a company in the next year, it could mean, okay, we're going to delay that by six months because we want to make sure we're doing it in the right way. It could mean we're going to invest in a bigger team because we want to make sure that the strategic decision that we make also has DEI considered in it. And then lastly, it's all the costs of actually implementing the work. So that means the willingness to change processes. So people often have this misconception that a DEI team, it's self-contained, it does the work, it sets the initiatives, it implements them, and that's it. But there are so many processes that are impacted by DEI work. And if you want to really transform an organization, you also need to change those processes. And that could be everything from talent acquisition, promotions, compensation, and benefits. So you need the organization to be willing to actually go in and change those processes. And that's expensive. That's very expensive. It can mean that you need people embedded within those teams that are doing DEI support. And I've seen DEI teams with only three, four, five people that are really effective. And the reason that they're effective is because they have people across the organization embedded within those teams that spend their time doing DEI work within their area. And that, I think, might be the most critical thing you need and also very expensive thing you need for success.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, it's so impactful. And I don't want to have you sort of repeat your book to us. This is a good call for our listeners to go buy the book, and we'll give you a link to do that, certainly in the show notes as well. But there's so much in there. I mean, you even give advice in one of your chapters on how to frame conversations with senior executives around ROI and how D&I factors in. I love one of the tips you give, which is just think about what the Glassdoor reviews say, like, what do you want them to say about our organization? And I think the public can often get in front of well-intended organizational deliverables. And so I think that's a great question to ask. And again, Sarah, you give good budget. You give real numbers in your book too. Like, here's what data says are best practices in certain levels of companies and corporations and organizations. Here's how that budget might be distributed. So if you're out there struggling for some budgetary insight, definitely grab a copy of Sarah's book because it is very helpful in starting the conversation. But let's go beyond budget, and let's go back to this being an impossible job. You've highlighted today so many areas of complexity, from budget, from buy-in, from misperceptions. There's a lot. So amidst this sea of impossibility, knowing that DEI work often fails and it costs a lot, and that cost is not just money, why the heck do it? I mean, can you offer us a perspective on what imperatives we call upon to keep us centered in this work? Because it's difficult work. So what's the why here? What do you always go back to keep you on track?

Sarah Cordivano

Well, first to talk about the perspective of the companies of an organization. Why would they do this work? Because often I get that question too. Especially we're looking ahead to the next six months. We're looking at an economic downturn. Why are companies doing this? What is the case for them to continue to work on DEI? So the first thing I would say is they have to do it because their employees demand it. Investors and regulators are requiring it more and more so with actual tangible regulations, and the customers are looking for it. And all of these groups are getting much better at figuring out what is nonsense and what is real. So in the last few years, we've seen companies really have to take this topic more seriously because they have no choice. And then, for the perspective of myself and my colleagues are doing this work in DEI, I think everyone has different motivations. A lot of people have very strong personal feelings around why they want to do DEI work, what change they want to see. I'm also motivated because I would like to have a direct impact on the experiences of my coworkers. I want them to feel the impact of my work. I don't care so much whether the executive team feels the impact of my work, to be honest. I care whether the employees in my company feel the impact of my work. That's what counts to me. And at the same time, I really appreciate one of my motivators is the ability to have influence over decisions and how money is spent and how a business is expanded, or how we focus our campaigns, or how we make our website accessible. That is power. Having control over how money is spent is where power lies. And I think, for me, that's one of the motivators because we can do a lot of grassroots, individual-level work. But if we're not actually changing how money is spent, then there's a limit to what we can do. Right.

Phil Wagner

So what have you found to be the most impactful DEI deliverables? To walk out that why. The things that do the very thing you just mentioned, right? Like, create change and difference in the lives of those I bump elbows with laterally in the organization. Do you have any insight on things that might work particularly well that are really worth the investment in the effort?

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, so the first, I would say, is doing a DEI survey and actually collecting the data. Because until you do that, you don't know where your issues are. But once you do that, you can really understand the intersection of identity and inclusion, and belonging. And that becomes very powerful because instead of saying, on average, the entire company feels X, you can say, well, these specific communities are marginalized. These specific communities lack opportunity and leadership, and then you can really focus your efforts there. And then I would say another way to have really big impact is to make sure DEI is reflected in your business's strategic goals in the future. So that could be through an operational plan or OKRs or whatever objective setting that you do. And if DEI is really a required element in that and everyone takes it seriously, maybe it is even reinforced through bonuses or some other mechanism where there is accountability, then you actually see people doing this work, and it's difficult for business leaders to really own it until there's some incentive that really forces them to do it.

Phil Wagner

So I want to switch ever so slightly and talk to my Berlin friend for a second because I teach courses on DEI leadership, and I've talked about this openly. I think as DEI practitioners, we've got to admit our strengths and our weaknesses. And one of my weaknesses is in such a limited span of a term or a semester. There's so much content to cover as you prepare students to go out and lead in impactful ways in DEI space because you have to cover everything from very basic terminology. You have to grapple with competing political ideologies and all of the identity affinity spaces, disability, sexuality, race, and race. There's so much to cover, and admittedly I make concessions because we send most of our students into the world of work to globally-minded companies that are often anchored here in the west and particularly in the States. I'm wondering if you have any insight on DEI in the global context. Right? Like how do we take our lens, our landscape, and expand it beyond just one geographic area? Because as you mentioned, doing DEI work in the States and doing it in Berlin is going to look very different. Ideas about race, for instance, are going to differ quite significantly there. So how might even western anchored organizations take on a global mentality in their DEI work?

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah, the first thing I would say is looking at your strategy and making sure it's not just prioritizing or focusing on one geographic area or the needs of one geographic area. So when you work in an organization that has a global footprint, it's very possible that you're getting more complaints or you're getting more interest on DEI from some geographic areas compared to others. But that doesn't mean that those areas are somehow more important to you. And I think it really takes a global strategy that doesn't prioritize on just one geographic area or one location to make sure that you are thinking beyond just one specific area. And what does that practically look like? So it could be having a globally relevant strategy but then having local ownership and the ability to adapt initiatives or focuses locally. So you could do that with an advocate program where you have people based in different geographic areas or different parts of the business that are empowered to take the ambition or the goals of the strategy and adapt them for whatever is locally relevant. And I'll give you a specific example. So one of my previous companies, we did a DEI survey in 50 countries, and we went through a lot of effort to make sure that that survey was globally relevant. But we also did a lot of work around translations. So we used locally relevant language to make sure that when we're asking a question about race, for example, we are not just forcing my own western and American views around the world. And that becomes very challenging because a lot of DEI folks, they are very passionate about this topic, and they think they know the answers to everything. But there is a humility in saying, you know what, we don't know. We have to get advice from people in other parts of the world, and sometimes we have to step back, and we have to center their voices and not our own.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, and you talk about this at length. I mean, I love in the section where you share on some of your own lessons learned. I think it's mistake number one is just thinking too narrowly about diversity, and you talk about it in the sense of identity. But I also think that applies to sort of Western versus globally anchored perspectives, too, to expand that's part of the work, the self-development work for DEI practitioners. I have a few more questions, and Sarah, I could talk to you all day because I think maybe I'm your target audience here. I read this book, and I'm like, yes, somebody put words around these frustrations or what we need to bring about greater coherency and clarity. I gleaned so much. You've spoken to the economic downturn that seems to be impending. Are there other things on your radar or things you see in the future that might continue to make this even more complicated work? The area of DEI leadership. Things ahead that we might be mindful of?

Sarah Cordivano

That's a great question. I think that we don't even know yet what the impact of the economic downturn will have on our work. I know anecdotally from friends that DEI roles are already being cut, budgets are getting cut, and DEI work is being deprioritized. But I think there's also probably a broader discussion, less about the economy and more about global migration. And I think we saw this with the current war in Ukraine around, how can we as businesses support people to migrate and find either support remote work or find opportunities in different countries? And I think this is a hugely it's in a way, a bit of an immature topic because it's going to require a lot more effort and also policy change in terms of how immigrants, myself included but many others, are able to move around the world and access opportunity because one of the biggest issues we saw during COVID is that all of a sudden, it became possible to work outside of the headquarter location of a company, and all of a sudden, that brings economic development, economic resources to small towns in the US for example. Or it could be other countries in the global south. So I don't have a perfect prediction on this yet, but I'm actually really curious to see how this develops. And I think you just need a few big companies to make a global remote working policy, to communicate a global remote working policy, and then a lot of other companies will follow.

Phil Wagner

Yeah. So one more question for you.

Sarah Cordivano

Sure.

Phil Wagner

This is difficult work. I mean, your book owns that. We've talked about it quite extensively today. There are folks who find themselves every day in precarious positions. Maybe they are CDOs. Maybe they are leading ERGs. They're NHR and tasked to do this work as a sole entity, which, again, your book also talked about why that's bad practice. So what advice can you offer someone who is in a DEI position to create sort of healthy relationship with that work itself, maintain that work-life balance, ensure that they are not being emotionally or physically, or organizationally exploited? What advice can you give to DEI practitioners to keep doing the work but do it in a healthy way?

Sarah Cordivano

Yeah. So, first, I'll say that the advice I'm going to share with you is not just relevant to DEI folks. There is a lot of people who do very emotionally intense work. For example, people working in ethics, human rights, sustainability. And I think this advice might be relevant to them as well. Because all of those jobs, something that we're really passionate about, we want to do a good job, we empathize with our stakeholders, the people that we're trying to impact, and we also want to meet their expectations. We're coming from a place where I want to do a good job, and I want people to think and feel that I'm doing a good job. But all of that boils down to a very difficult situation. So the first thing I would say, let me give maybe four key pieces of advice. The first would be having very clear expectations with ourselves and the people we work with. So being very transparent about what our role is, what is out of scope of our role, what we can do, what we can't do, and then building on that, developing a really good sense of what is within and outside of our sphere of control. This is a tough one because it can be a bit of a personal, painful journey to figure out. I don't have influence over that. But the reality is our stakeholders assume that we have influence over everything. They see a DEI person, they say, oh, of course, you have control over compensation. Of course, you have control over whether the doors of this building are accessible. Of course, you have control over our talent processes or our promotion processes. But in reality, there's typically a lot of topics in an organization that the leadership did not perceive as a DEI topic. But our stakeholders don't know that. So we have to be very authentic and open. And sometimes, it hurts our ego a little bit to say, I don't have any control over that, but if we don't set that expectation, then we're just going to be constantly disappointing them. And I think, again, this is how we deal with that difficulty that building that healthy relationship with the work. And then the next thing is probably really around remembering that even if we're passionate about the work we do, it's still a job.

Phil Wagner

That's good.

Sarah Cordivano

It's a financial transaction. Someone's giving me money for my time and expertise, and I'm going to do my best. But also, I don't want to work for free. And there's a privilege in being paid for this work. There's a lot of people that do this work without being paid. So it's important that we take care of ourselves and that we are not burnt out and that we, yeah, essentially. Lastly, I would say we use that time outside of work to really recharge. We take our vacation days. We're sick. We take sick days. We surround ourselves with people that can support us that we trust, and we really use that time to recharge.

Phil Wagner

I love all of those, and I really like the note on payment and transaction. And if you are in a privileged space where maybe you're not in need of that financial transaction, be wary of the precedent you're setting for other DEI practitioners. No, I'll do it for the team. What precedent are you setting for the value of DEI work? And when that then is in the hands of someone who isn't more of an economic precarious situation or is again one of those historically underrepresented or minoritized populations, you've then contributed to the expectation that their work, their voice, their value, their outputs are not worthy of payment. So I think it's something to be hyper-mindful of too. Just the transactional nature of it all. That's really helpful insight. All right, final question, but this is an easy one. How can our listeners support you? This book is fire. So I will set the stage and say, go buy the book. What it does is it takes everything you wanted to know about how to build a coherent DEI platform, DEI position, DEI leadership voice, and it just brings it all to the table. So I will put my personal endorsement on this. This is everything I wanted to see in one volume and now do. So it's a fantastic book. Where can our listeners buy, support? How can they support you?

Sarah Cordivano

Wow, I have to say you are so kind. You are too generous. But thank you for saying all that. Wow. The listeners won't know this, but my book just launched yesterday, so it's been a bit of an emotional roller coaster to actually have the courage and confidence to release this into the world. So it means a lot that it has meant something to you. So thank you for that. But yes, you can buy this book on Amazon. It is available in ebook, paperback, hardcover. You can also find it on other Amazon sites, not just Amazon.com, so all across the world. And if you are in a situation where you cannot afford to buy this book, please get in contact with me, and I am super happy to give you a copy in it, just contact me. There's a form on my website, which is my name, sarahcordovano.com. And please just reach out to me, I'll get you the book. And I also have a blog, so if you want to read more about what I write and what I think, check out my blog, which you can also find on my website. And I think that's it. That's probably the key points.

Phil Wagner

No, that's good. And if you're in a position where you can afford to buy this book and can afford to buy a copy for a friend, do it. Do it, do it. Give it to a student. Give it to an MBA student, undergraduate student, somebody who is DEI minded, even if they're not sort of aiming for a DEI-centric position, because it's a really strong manual. So, again, we're recording this on August 4. It dropped on August 3. But as you know, if you're listening to this, it is not those dates. It's been out into the world for a while, so there's no excuse. Go pick up a copy today. Sarah, it's a real privilege to speak with you. Thank you for chatting with us a little bit more about the impossible nature of DEI work and how we can have hope to do that work well to create a different reality for the future. So it's been a real joy speaking with you today.

Sarah Cordivano

Thank you. You too.

Phil Wagner

Thanks for taking a second to listen to Diversity Goes to Work. If you like what you heard, share the show with a friend, leave us a review on Apple podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts and reach out because we're always looking for new friends. And if you'd like to learn more about any of our programs or initiatives here in the business school at William & Mary, be sure to visit us at mason.wm.edu. Until next time.

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Episode 31: December 5, 2022

Black Dignity

Today on the show, we welcome Erika Cartledge. Erika started the personal styling website Your Chic is Showing, which helps build confidence through fashion and style. She has also served in a variety of marketing roles and is currently the Major Gifts Director for the Key School. She has 13 years experience in the finance industry and five years in the non-profit space and is a part of Goldman Sachs 1 Million Black women Initiative, a program focused on female sole proprietors who are starting or running businesses and helping give them the tools and information to grow and scale their business.

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Show Notes
Show Notes
  • What does Black Dignity truly mean
  • How a lack of dignity manifests in fashion and style
  • What the difference is between dignity and respect
  • What the pandemic revealed about code-switching
  • How to equip non-POC workers to identify and address dignity violations
  • What tools should marginalized communities develop to advocate for their own dignity
  • How best to embed dignity into DEI work in the world of work
Transcript

Erika Cartledge

At a corporation, if I don't feel good, how can I go out and sell your product? How can I go out and represent a company? It is too important to the work that you're doing, wherever you are, to just be base level and surface level. And does it mean people are going to have to go? Yeah, probably.

Phil Wagner

Hello from the halls of the Mason School of Business here at William & Mary. I'm Phil, and this is Diversity Goes to Work. Buckle up because we're getting ready to take a deep dive into the real human lived experiences that shape and guide our diversity work in the world of work. Should be fun. Welcome, listeners, to yet another episode of Diversity Goes to Work. I'm joined today by my friend Erika Cartledge, who I am so excited to host here. Erika Cartledge is just a force. If you've ever met her, even for just a moment, you'll feel it. She's got an energy that just commands the room. She's busy. She bleeds blue as a proud Howard alum go bison. Erika started her personal styling company. Your Chic is Showing to help folks elevate their personal style and build their confidence. She's rocked this space as a personal shopper, wardrobe overhauler, closet detoxer, styler, educator. She's got ebooks, a thriving Instagram community. And let me be clear, that's like a quarter of what Erika does. She's also served in a variety of marketing roles and is currently the major gifts director for the Key School in Annapolis, Maryland. She's a devoted partner, mom, and, honestly, just one of the coolest people you'll ever meet. So, Erika, it's a delight to have you here. I'm sure that I have botched your background in some way. Can you tell our listeners maybe a little bit more about who you are and what you do? And you have kind of a recent exciting update in that bio. I'm hoping you'll sort of sprinkle in there as well. Welcome, my friend.

Erika Cartledge

Yeah, absolutely. So, first of all, you didn't botch the bio, and if you could just introduce me every time I walk into a room, that'd be great.

Phil Wagner

Deal. Deal.

Erika Cartledge

I love that. So thank you for such a warm introduction. As Phil said, I'm Erika Cartledge. I like to say that I am not in the fashion business. I'm in the confidence business. And so I am the personal stylist and image architect behind Your Chic is Showing. And as Phil said, I help people cultivate their confidence using fashion and style. I also have 13 years of experience in the finance industry and almost five years of experience in the nonprofit space. So a lot of breadth of experience. And so the really exciting development that Phil is talking about is that I am a part of Goldman Sachs 1 million Black Women initiative, and I am in the inaugural cohort of their Black in Business program. And this program is focused on female sole proprietors who are starting businesses or are running businesses and helping give them the tools and information to grow and scale their businesses. So as you think about, black female entrepreneurs are the fastest sector of entrepreneurs that are growing. So they're starting businesses. We're starting them at a faster rate. But the other flip side of that is that most businesses go out of business within the first five years.

Phil Wagner

Right.

Erika Cartledge

And so, part of Goldman's diversity initiative is to focus on black women in a variety of different areas and industries, and sectors. And so black in business is the one that focuses on black female entrepreneurs. And the great thing about it is they are using that as a pipeline to move us into their 10,000 Small Businesses program. They've helped, like, 23,000 or something like that. But this has been an incredible program. It's like being back in school. So we have sessions four days a week. I've got homework and everything else. But it is elevating me as a business owner and an entrepreneur, and a CEO. So it's just been an incredible program. And thanks to Goldman Sachs for putting their money where their mouth is, right? So they're talking about billion-dollar investments into the black community, and this is just one way that they're doing it.

Phil Wagner

That fits perfectly with where we're going. But we have to pause and say, my gosh, what an honor. But knowing you and your work, duh, of course, because, again, you are driving change, and you are leading with such a focus on changing culture around this. So I appreciate the work you do and really excited to see this honor bestowed to you. All right, so let's talk about what we're here to talk about today. Your Chic is Showing is in the confidence industry. And we're here today to talk about something that I think is one of the tendrils of that, which is dignity. We want to center a conversation on human dignity, but also sort of black dignity specifically. I love Donna Hicks work. It's a foundation to what I do when I teach DEI leadership courses. And I think part of what I love about that work the most is it takes not just DEI but leadership in general and boils it down to an explicit focus on dignity. I think dignity is a way to work against the theater that is DEI work. So much of the DEI industrial complex is about optics, and I think dignity is an anecdote to that. So let's talk about black dignity for a bit. How does that term sit with you? Can you contextualize the idea of dignity for us based on your own experiences?

Erika Cartledge

Yeah, so I've been thinking a lot about that. I love the term, and here's why. So when I think about dignity and allowing for people to have dignity, the base level of that is seeing someone. Right. And it's seeing yourself and then having other people actually truly see you. Right. And that, I think, to your point, about it being antidote to sort of the performative nature that can come with DEI. When you actually see someone, it's no longer performative because you are comprehending them and realizing them as a human being, a multi-dimensional person. And so, so much of the work that I do is around giving people dignity because, for better or worse, how we show up, how we present ourselves, how people receive us, how they perceive us, is tied to how we are dressing and how we carry ourselves. And a lot of times, we don't allow ourselves to have dignity, right? So when you aren't allowing yourself to have dignity, when you are not recognizing realizing yourself as a whole multi-dimensional person, that manifests in your wardrobe, and it manifests in how you show up, right? And so in, this idea of dignity is so interesting because it's internal. But so much of what comes at us externally helps us either decide we're worthy of having dignity or not, right? So I think about my plus-size clients, right? And you are told you don't deserve to take up space. You don't deserve to be here. You don't deserve to show up. So what that internalizes to you is, I don't deserve dignity. I don't deserve to be who I am and to take up space. And so then that manifests, and I wear clothes to hide. Whether it's, I wear things to hide and make myself look smaller. I wear things to hide and blend in and disappear. You are now manifesting that. And so then it's a self-fulfilling prophecy because now you don't look the part because you don't believe it. But then people don't take you seriously. People don't allow for that dignity. And so it's really interesting when I do my styling, I'm always like, it's 20% the clothes on your body, and it's 80% this hard work that we do because I have to get you to believe you deserve to show up. You are powerful. You deserve to take up space. You deserve to have dignity and have people see you. And then, once you believe that, then we can manifest it on the outside. I can find you cute clothes, whatever the size is, right? So I love doing that and helping people realize you are worthy, and you're worthy right here, right now. You don't have to be a milestone. You don't have to be a size. You don't have to be a certain race. You don't have to be a gender. You are worthy right here, right now. And so then, if I take this into black dignity and thinking about that, that is something that, as a black woman, I work to instill into my kids every day, right? Because this idea of dignity and having dignity and being able to be seen, it doesn't just start when we show up in corporate. It doesn't just start when we start working at a company. It starts when we're kids. My son had an experience where there's another little black boy in his daycare. They both have curly hair, they're in the same class, they play together, and so kids mix them up all the time. And I had an instance where a child called my son the other child's name, and I said, no, hey, this is James. James, can you say hi? And the dad got really upset at me for correcting her. Oh, it doesn't matter. It does matter.

Phil Wagner

It does matter. Absolutely.

Erika Cartledge

My child having a name. My childhood identity absolutely matters. And he's two and a half, so he's not always big enough to advocate for himself. So my job is to do that and to allow him, at two, to have dignity. Because if you think about the trajectory, if he's constantly being dehumanized or having his identity stripped away, and the other child is on a trajectory of everyone going, it's okay, it doesn't matter. Then when they work together, when they're 25 and 30 and 35, and she's his manager, she's been taught black people don't need dignity. I don't need to see them. And so now she's bringing that into a workplace, and now he's fighting whatever workplace politics there are on top of this dignity conversation.

Phil Wagner

There's so many reasons why it absolutely matters, right? I mean, even going back to Donna Hicks work, it's an acceptance of identity violation. It's a recognition violation. It's an acknowledgment violation. There are safety issues there. I don't want to put your kid's name out to the world, but kid A and kid B, if I say it doesn't matter if kid B goes by kid A's name when I refer to them. What happens when one of those is running across the street, and I say the name, and I have just cued the other kids a little it's a safety violation. There's so many levels of inhumanity or dignity violation, I think, present there. So I want to talk about, particularly in the context of DEI work in the world of work. We talk a lot about respectability politics, and I think a lot of people confuse dignity for respect, and I see those as two very different terms. I'm wondering if you do as well. Any insights?

Erika Cartledge

I definitely see them as two different terms. I think it is possible to respect someone or respect what they do without necessarily giving them or assigning dignity to them. I don't think you can assign dignity to someone without also respecting them.

Phil Wagner

That's a good way to put it.

Erika Cartledge

And so when I think about it that way, I can take so many examples in my life and my career where I know people respect what I do, but in the same breath, they have shown me that there is no place for dignity, there is no place for identity. I blend into the sea of black people that they may or may not have met, and I think then respectability politics gets into that, right? Because it's layered into the well, I respect you and you do a good job, so you have to behave this way. You have to behave in the way that I'm expecting you to behave. You have to conform to something, and I'm expecting you to do it because I do think you're good at your job, or I do think you're smart, or whatever that is. But if you really allowed me to have dignity, then you would say, I understand why that's not okay. I understand why you're reacting this way. I understand you are not an angry black woman. But there is a massive microaggression or macroaggression that was leveled against you, and you are having a natural response, and we are telling you to respond in a certain way to something that we have no experience with. Right? And so once you allow someone some dignity, then you can understand the behaviors, and you stop trying to put them in this box and say, well, if you would just soften it or if you would make it palatable. You don't tell white women to make things palatable. Right.

Phil Wagner

Ever.

Erika Cartledge

We definitely don't tell white men to make things palatable.

Phil Wagner

We don't tell white men nothing. I know, yeah.

Erika Cartledge

So why do I have to say the same thing but now make it palatable for you? I definitely think there are two separate issues.

Phil Wagner

The way it plays out is quite extreme because the flip side of respectability politics leads to Trevon, leads to George. I mean, it leads to acts of violence. So you don't fit in that box. The stakes are high. And so I think the respect thing a nice first step, certainly never enough. And even with what you do in the entrepreneurship circle, I think a lot of people probably respect what you do. But I'm certain I know, I've heard you speak about this, that respecting what you do is say, oh, she does good work. I want to pick her brain without compensating her. That's the dignity. That's the difference. Dignity is saying, I respect what she does and I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. It's Goldman saying she's great, and I am going to fund that. I am going to incentivize her to keep being great. And so I think there's an action difference between those two.

Erika Cartledge

That is a great example of it. I think exactly to your point about investing in, compensate, or even negotiating with people, right? I get people who are like, I want to pay you, but I don't want to pay your rate. And I know for a fact you're not over here trying to negotiate and get someone else to come down on their rates. And so, yeah, exactly to your point about allowing for that dignity and say, well, just because I'm a black female entrepreneur, you think I should charge $1,000 less. You think my prices are too high. I know you're not in someone else's inbox saying that the prices are too high, right?

Phil Wagner

Yeah. Okay, so let's talk about some dignity violations. Those are those times to me where our dignity or even just sort of through an observational lens, the dignity of others is not honored. How might we think about dignity violations playing out in the workplace? And I know there are a variety of different ways we could go in this conversation with what you do. I think even some of the professionalism standards that we uphold in the world of work are often coded as white or definitely coded as sort of thin-centric, just the nature of code-switching or the problematic nature of work culture fit, which often puts minoritized or historically underrepresented folks to them. I mean, there's so many different ways.

Erika Cartledge

There's so many ways.

Phil Wagner

I don't even know where to start the conversation.

Erika Cartledge

I want to touch on all of them.

Phil Wagner

Let's go, let's go.

Erika Cartledge

We could just go bullet by bullet by bullet. Right?

Phil Wagner

I know.

Erika Cartledge

So let's talk a little bit about the obvious tie into my work as a stylist, which is around thin-centric, eurocentric, just standards of your appearance, right? And how you show up. And especially in the finance industry, they are so archaic and antiquated in a lot of ways. And so I can even think about she's probably not listening to this, but I had a boss when I was a salesperson, and in the summertime, it is too hot to wear your hair straightened and pressed. So I'm like, okay, I wear the hair curly the way it grows out of my head. And I remember I came to work one day, she put her hands in my head in front of everyone and said, what is this? What are you doing? Which is a dignity violation. It's a physical violation of my space. It is a violation of me literally showing up as myself because I have the hair that grows out of my head. There's the violation of you doing it and performing this act in front of all of these people. And then there's another violation because everyone watched her do it, and no one said a word.

Phil Wagner

Which is also dignity violation. Right. You talk about bystander intervention all the time, and then when push comes to shove, nobody pipes in.

Erika Cartledge

So there's that piece of it. There is the commentary on bodies. Oh, you lost 20 pounds and people think it's a compliment, and you think it's a good thing.

Phil Wagner

Been there.

Erika Cartledge

Yeah, you know, you don't invite the conversation. Why is my body, and what is happening with it?

Phil Wagner

Not an art piece.

Erika Cartledge

Yeah, it's not an art piece. I'm not on display. This isn't a conversation topic. It's not a coffee table book. Like backup. Right?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Erika Cartledge

So there's that piece of it. I think a lot about, especially, black women's bodies. We are built differently, right? We got curves. We got butts. We got all of the things. So there are things that I see other people wear to the office. And I'm like, I can't wear that. Not because it's inappropriate, not because I shouldn't be wearing it, but just because of the way that my body is. I will be perceived differently.

Phil Wagner

For sure.

Erika Cartledge

People will have comments, people will say things, and there's the dignity violation of I should be able to wear the things that I want to wear. But also, you don't. Again, my body is not a topic for conversation. God, like, do not be pregnant in the workplace. Because then it's the dignity violations. It's the touching your belly. It's the all invasive. It's everything, right? So I think there's the very natural, kind of like physical dignity violations. But then I think even for me, the parts that are more difficult, the code-switching because it's exhausting, right?

Phil Wagner

Constantly.

Erika Cartledge

So I have code-switched my whole life, right? I went to a predominantly white private schools my whole life, but then I would be in church and hanging out with my friends that were outside of school. And so I was already. I've been code-switching since I could talk, right?

Phil Wagner

Yeah.

Erika Cartledge

And so it came naturally. I didn't realize how exhausting it was until we were in the pandemic and. Everyone was home, and I didn't have to go physically be in white-centered spaces. And if something was too much, I could turn my camera off. I could step away, right? And so then to go back to now we're all in person and having to do that, I was exhausted in a way that I'm like, was I always this tired? And I didn't realize it. Which I think that's exactly what it was. And it wasn't until I could turn it off, right? And I could turn it off for a number of reasons, because of the social and political climate, I could just be like, I'm not doing this today, because we were all stuck at home. I could show up in my head wrap on a meeting, and nobody was going to say anything, right? Whereas I might not do that if I'm physically going into the office. And so I remember that even being kind of more exhausting than some of the wild comments and things that people would fly, let fly. But then I think then I also noticed the unchecked nature when there would be microaggressions, right? So one microaggression. I started my job in fundraising with another woman who was a black woman. We look nothing alike. I was pregnant for most of the time that we worked together. And people were constantly calling us the wrong name. I mean, constantly. And that's annoying in and of itself. But to have coworkers and people who knew me not step in and say, well, no, this is Erika and this is that person, that's almost worse, because then it's like, do you see my dignity? Do you see my humanity? Because you have watched this person.

Phil Wagner

Withering in front of their eyes.

Erika Cartledge

Right, right.

Phil Wagner

Where's the responsibility?

Erika Cartledge

Those are the things where I think it chips away at your dignity and at your humanity. But I also think that's low-hanging fruit.

Phil Wagner

Exactly. Everybody is like, I don't want to get in DEI work cause I don't know what I could do. And I'm not schooled in this. You can intervene when somebody calls somebody the wrong name. That is the lowest-hanging fruit.

Erika Cartledge

That is low-hanging fruit. Or if you call the wrong name, apologizing and say, you know what? I know that you're Erika, and I'm really sorry I mixed it up.

Phil Wagner

Yeah, of course.

Erika Cartledge

Right. That is below 101. I don't even know what is under 101.

Phil Wagner

Remedial.

Erika Cartledge

And those are the kind of things that when people are like, how can I get involved? How can I make a change? By doing that, by stepping in and saying, no, that's not right. I mean, I had another experience where I was working really hope this person doesn't listen. But was working with someone, and she kept making comments about wanting to support a student at the school where I wor