Moving Equity Initiatives Beyond Bland Notes Of Solidarity, Buzzwords And Box Checking
Discussions and debates about diversity and equality have been happening in the news, in social circles and in the workplace for decades.
Racial inequity came to the forefront of office conversations as affirmative action and equal employment laws came into effect in the 1960s. In the ’70s and ’80s, the topic of parity in pay gained momentum as women rose to executive positions at less-than-executive salaries. The scope of the dialogue broadened throughout the ’90s and early 2000s to include physical and neurological ability as well as gender and sexual identity.
Despite the progress that has been made, inequities persist, so the conversation continues. Today, it centers around diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, or DEIB, helping to make workplaces more just while also fostering teamwork and innovation. But for many people, the topic of DEIB remains nebulous. What exactly does it mean? How does it work, and why?
It starts with diversity—building our teams with diverse people and points of view. However, when the conversation is only about diversity, tokenization can sometimes happen. So, inclusion became part of the equation—D&I. While diversity is about representation, inclusion is about involvement. When our teams are inclusive, everyone is not only present but is included in making decisions.
Equity entered the conversation in recognition that every individual is not starting from the same place—disadvantages and disparities exist—so the playing field must be adjusted accordingly. Belonging is the final piece of the puzzle, happening when all individuals feel they truly belong and are being seen and heard.
To better understand the concept of DEIB, think of a group project in college. Diversity means different types of students are represented in the group—a variety of genders, nationalities, sexualities, etc. Equity means each member of the group has access to the required text and materials, adequate transportation to the meeting and any accommodations necessary for a disability. Inclusion means all students in the group are invited to all meetings (no secret meetings or side work to evade others) and are empowered to participate in group discussions and contribute their ideas. Belonging happens when all students feel comfortable working with the others, like their views are heard and embraced by the group and feel uninhibited in their contributions and learning.
The entire group project is made better—more successful and enjoyable for all—as a result.
A group project in college is just an example. All teams can find more success by aiming for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, whether it’s in a corporate environment, nonprofit board, homeowners association, booster club or just a circle of friends. How? When people feel accepted, understood and cared for, productivity is boosted. Retention improves while turnover goes down. Creativity is enhanced. Innovation increases.
Kevin Shah ’09 has seen the benefits of DEIB efforts in workplaces and organizations time and time again. An expert in creating Internet of Things products, he resigned from a successful corporate position after seeing the products he helped produce to protect police officers used to assault protesters following the George Floyd murder in 2020. He asked himself how he could help remedy the polarization happening in our communities.
“The answer, to me, is simple: empathy,” says Shah. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Entrepreneurs like Shah have found it’s also the key that unlocks the door to a truly inclusive—and thus, more successful—society and workplace.
“If we practice empathy, we can build a community and help solve the issue with people talking past each other,” he says. “Then, I had that ‘ah-ha!’ moment. You can learn empathy one-to-one and understand each other if you truly come in with this mindset, but how do you make it scalable?”
To do that, Shah created the app Jaago, named for the Hindi word for “wake up,” to help people practice empathy and truly understand each other.
“Just like we work out every day to stay healthy—you can’t just hire a personal trainer once a year—we need to make empathy a daily habit,” Shah says. “All companies do right now is do a workshop once a year and check the box. Data shows that after 48 hours, that training expires because no continuous behavioral changes are happening. So to reframe this, we built the world’s first ‘empathy gym’ platform.”
Just like working out your body at the gym, Jaago helps its users work their empathy muscles. The platform houses user-generated video stories of life experiences—the act of sharing is an act of empathy in itself—and as others view these videos and hear these perspectives, understanding starts to form. The viewer answers a few short questions after the video then receives an empathy score for self-reflection and ongoing improvement. The app is being used not only by individuals seeking to understand others but also across corporate teams to foster better communication and empathy within the workplace.
“We can keep talking about DEI—we need education—yes, we need education and better recruiting—but none of that will stick until leaders change and become more empathetic,” says Shah. “From their perspective, they’re the hero of the story. So how are they understanding? They all need empathy. The reason our workplaces are toxic and white supremacy is continually propagated is a lack of empathy.”
When championing progress toward more just teams and organizations, we must move beyond bland notes of solidarity, buzzwords and box checking. So, how can an individual help ignite real, actionable change and drive toward the goals of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging? Shah suggests three things everyone can do:
- Self-reflect. “What is your own self-reflection plan? How did your personal experience shape your perspective? Did you grow up with a single parent? Were you adopted? Into sports? Have a disability? Think about how your life experience has shaped your perspective.”
- Go learn. “Everyone else’s life experience has shaped their unique perspective. You can’t force your perspective onto others, like, ‘I have a perspective; why is everyone else not aligned to that?’ You’re only hearing part of the story. Go learn other peoples’ stories.”
- Ask questions. “Truly come in with an open mind, an open approach. It’s going to be hard. Be comfortable with discomfort. If we embrace discomfort, that’s when growth happens, when change happens. Every time you’re feeling uncomfortable about some topic, that’s the right topic to go after and learn.”
From this self-reflection and learning process, not only are we practicing empathy, but we can then grow to become allies. Florida Tech adjunct professor and doctoral student Jackie Noto ’19 M.S. focuses her work as a behavioral scientist on leadership, allyship, safety and training. Her research has included active-shooter scenario response, socioeconomic disparities and resource access, and diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.
Noto spoke in May at a Florida Tech Alumni Association event about allyship and self-identifying privileges, saying that as we all have different backgrounds and experiences, self-identification can be a helpful start to determine the topics for one’s learning.
“Understanding the effects of your privilege and challenging your biases is an important first step,” she says, “but it takes more to be an ally. The label ‘ally’ is not something one can give themselves. It is to be actively earned through daily choices.”
Just as a person is not forevermore labeled “funny” because they made a joke once but instead because they are regularly humorous, allyship is not achieved in one instance and then set. It is an ongoing effort.
One of the ways Noto suggests keeping allyship present is to model the behaviors yourself.
“Something as simple as using gender-inclusive greetings—for example, ‘Greetings, everyone’ versus ‘Ladies and gentlemen’— or an action as small as placing pronouns in an email signature can aid in the sense of belonging for gender-nonconforming individuals.”
When leaders reinforce ally-like behaviors, the behaviors can become habitual and part of a company’s culture instead of an afterthought.
There have been—and will be—bumps along the way. Despite the best of intentions, unintentional microaggressions may happen as we all learn and grow together. It can be beneficial for those who find themselves in a hostile or otherwise unsupportive environment to confide in a trusted individual who can be present in future unsupportive instances.
“This individual would be aware of previously unsupportive behavior and can keep watch for those behaviors. At work, I would also suggest talking with someone from the human resource department or in management,” Noto says. “This is not something that has to be carried alone.”
Similar to Shah’s suggestion for us all to move from the comfort zone into the growth zone, Noto suggests finding a diverse social network of individuals from which to receive feedback, “like a personal team of ‘accountabilibuddies,’” she says, noting that these individuals should have different backgrounds and experiences than you.
“Sometimes, it can be easier for an outside observer to identify when harm is being caused. An additional suggestion is to further immerse oneself in educational resources. We can all continue to learn and grow.”
In the workplace, Noto says, “Leaders can impact the culture of an entire organization. Leaders can create systems without barriers and, instead, with equity and equal opportunity for all. When people feel included and supported, there will likely be increased engagement, which is connected to productivity.”
McKinsey & Co. reports that companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity in leadership were 33% more likely to have industry-leading profitability; conversely, companies in the bottom quartile were 29% less likely to achieve above-average profitability than all other companies.
“It’s simply good for business,” says Dia Simms ’01 MSM. Simms is the CEO of Lobos 1707 Tequila & Mezcal, the spirits company backed by basketball icon LeBron James that has dedicated itself not only to making quality spirits but also to “building a bigger table” to allow for more inclusive representation and opportunities in the industry. “Do not approach diversity in leadership as charity. It’s a wise investment with all the math and data showing that it directly impacts the bottom line.”
Simms has held previous roles as president of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ company Combs Enterprises, leading the transformation of Cîroc Ultra-Premium Vodka into a billion-dollar value brand, and in the Department of Defense.
Throughout her career, Simms has often found herself to be the youngest person and the only woman of color in the room. She has learned to own her seat at the table.
“You belong in that seat,” she says to others who find themselves in the same situation. “Your being in that seat makes the room better. All humans share 99.5% the same genome, so the difference between you and anyone in the room is negligible.”
Simms likens the situation to breathing: Just as breathing doesn’t steal air from others, the same is true for opportunity.
“Welcome others to the table. … Wherever there isn’t enough room, build a bigger table.”
In May, Simms co-founded Pronghorn, a 10-year initiative developed to create a blueprint for effectively diversifying an industry. It has started with a focus on the Black community and the spirits industry and is poised to drive $2.4 billion of economic value by 2030.
“It’s important that we welcome everyone into the DEI conversation,” she says. “If people are hesitant or have questions, I welcome those questions.”
This piece was featured in the fall 2021 edition of Florida Tech Magazine.