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25 Non-Obvious Things I Learned About Diversity, Inclusion and Equity

It took me three weeks to write this article. Sometimes you just need a little more time listening before speaking.

What I was listening to (and watching), were the 54 conversations we hosted last month as part of our Non-Obvious Beyond Diversity Summit – an event that Chhavi Arya Bhargava and I created (in collaboration with SRC Partners and DICE) where we invited more than 200 authors, instigators and experts to imagine answers for a single question …

What will it take to create a more inclusive world?

Their answers, and the ideas they shared were illuminating. Before I share them, I should tell you that I approached this topic with curiosity and passion. I am not an expert in diversity or inclusion or equity. I do care deeply about it, though, and as an Indian-American living in the US I am professionally and personally affected by this every day.

For me, a more diverse and inclusive world is one where our two boys will see entrepreneurs, TV stars and politicians who look like them. It is one where they learn by example from the world (and from me) the right way to treat a woman, what mansplaining is, why being an ally matters and how a more inclusive world is better for women and for men.

That’s a lot to think about, and the truth is I’m still thinking. But I don’t want to wait to share these insights because I believe they can help many of us to shift our own perceptions, challenge our own unconscious biases and become better ourselves. Creating a more inclusive world means we all need to go beyond the conversation about diversity.

We need to make it happen. I believe these insights can help.

25 Non-Obvious Things I Learned About Diversity

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1. Take action.

Beyond Diversity - A book edited by Rohit Bhargava & Jennifer Brown

If there is a theme for 2021 when it comes to diversity, it would be that it’s finally time to turn conversation into action. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the movement for diversity grow both in business and in culture. But now we must get past the symbolic gestures of support and move toward action. This emerged so early in our discussions about the event that it ended up inspiring our entire theme for the event, which was to go BEYOND conversations and talk about what it would really take to create a more inclusive world. A key outcome of the summit, in addition to the lessons I’m sharing here, is that we are working on publishing a book filled with the best insights and advice from more than 200 expert speakers who participated in the summit. I’m happy to share that I’ll be collaborating and co-authoring this book with longtime diversity and inclusion expert Jennifer Brown and it will be coming out in Summer 2021 with Ideapress Publishing.

Learn more about the book and join the early reader list here >>

2. Go beyond single-issue diversity.

It is a wonderful thing to see entire day long conferences dedicated to bringing more women to tech or to help get more VC funding for black entrepreneurs or to encourage businesses to welcome more disabled or neurodiverse workers. What we didn’t see was anyone trying to bring these conversations together. This was where our ambition started and through the summit we learned just how unique and necessary this was. Thankfully we found plenty of partners in this mission, including Claudia Marks and Mary Cirincione from Getty Images who are working to shift the way we experience diversity through images and Leila McKenzie-Delis from DIAL Global leading some pioneering research on 10 facets of diversity. This idea of creating a place where all of these movements and the pioneers behind them could co-exist and support one another is the one outcome of the summit that I’m most proud of.

3. Make diversity relatable and authentic.

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Conversations about diversity are often between the same core group of people who work in this industry widely known now as DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion). Yet diversity and inclusion should not be an insular topic only discussed by professionals who work in the field. In our session about diversity and food, moderator Angela Chee posed the fascinating question about whether food might offer a gateway to embracing diverse cultures and author/entrepreneur Anupy Singla shared how she makes Indian culture approachable through food. In my interview with producer Yonta Taiwo, we talked about how pop supergroup Now United brings the world together through their unique style of music and sixteen group members each from a different country. Each conversation reminded us that the path to building an inclusive world might start with the food and music that we experience together.

4. Tokenism isn’t a victory.

Our summit was filled with speakers who have been the “only” representative of their culture, background or gender in countless situations. Nathania Christy talked about being the only female/millennial/Asian speaker at several events. Deepa Purushothaman talked about being the only female Indian partner at Deloitte. These first diverse trailblazers are celebrated but often risk also being used by organizations as a reason to celebrate a job well done rather than as the first step in a job well started. If the opportunities and efforts end there, what seemed like a step in the right direction might quickly fade into a display of tokenism instead. The same can be true of organizations that simply hire a Chief Diversity Officer and expect that this will bring real diversity. What it really takes, as several speakers noted during the summit, is a focus on mentoring and encouraging the diverse voices that already exist within your organization today so that they can become the diverse leaders of tomorrow.

5. Address the room’s elephant directly.

In my opening session to the summit, I interviewed popular comedian Maysoon Zayid about her story as a Palestinian-American female disabled comedian with celebral palsy from New Jersey. One of the many interesting insights she shared was taking a comedy class and not wanting to lead her set with her disability. “If you don’t talk about it,” her comedy teacher said, “your audience will spend the entire set thinking you’re either nervous or drunk. And audiences don’t like that.” So now she starts every set by addressing her disability with humor. One of her favorite opening lines: “I’m not drunk but the doctor who delivered me was.” Casting director Zora DeHorter shared a similar lesson: “I was so worried about being perceived as the angry black woman … but I’m ok being seen as that because I am an angry black woman – and there’s lots of reasons why I’m angry.” The summit was filled with similar bold and confident women like Dr. Joy Cox, Monika Samtani and Lindsay Kaplan making a similar point. You can’t be afraid of facing the stereotypes. Addressing them directly is a way to take back your power.

6. Diversity can be visible and invisible.

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In our conversation about bringing more diversity to the imagery we see in media and marketing, Shelina Janmohamed (Ogilvy Islamic Marketing) and Vimbayi Kajese (#adtags) both shared their personal stories of being seen immediately as visibly diverse and different. Vimbayi was the first African broadcast journalist on television in China. Shelina was often the only Muslim hijab-wearing woman in corporate marketing meetings. Becky Kekula from DisabilityIn also spoke about being a little person with Dwarfism walking into a job interview and dealing with those first looks of shock from unprepared managers. Alongside these stories of speakers with visible diversity were also stories of those who have invisible diversity – such as refugees, LGBTQ+ people and those with ADHD or autism (depending on their position on the spectrum). Each offered a powerful reminder that just as we should not judge those who clearly appear diverse, we also cannot dismiss the opinions or struggles of those whose diversity isn’t something that we can easily see.

7. Rethink your “person first” language.

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Before hosting our Beyond Diversity Summit, I had read and heard about so-called “person first language” (PFL) where experts suggest instead of saying “disabled person” – you say “person with a disability.” As we heard over and over from actual people with disabilties like Martyn Sibley, this is less about respecting those with disabilities and more about making the able-bodied feel better about themselves. According to disability advocate Rebecca Cokley, “we don’t want people to look at us and pretend we are not disabled. I’m not ‘differently abled,’ I’m disabled. The only people who have made disability stigmatized as a group are non-disabled people.”

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UPDATE: Since publishing this article one of our speakers, Janice Lintz, pointed out that there is often a distinction between how some people with visible disabilities (such as the speakers quoted above) choose to talk about their disabilities versus those who have more invisible disabilities such as hearing loss. Her article on Huffington Post on this point is a good read for further context.

8. Diverse colleagues are not your defacto teachers or experts.

There is a temptation within many organizations to treat diverse team members as in-house experts who can explain their culture to everyone else. Nearly every speaker at the summit had a story of a time when they were unfairly placed into the position of being the voice for their race or gender. Ironically, in some ways the #blacklivesmatter movement made this situation even worse for some people. There are diversity and inclusion experts who excel at things like unconscious bias training and teaching diverse leadership practices. This is not, however, a skill set that is fair to expect from every colleague who happens to be diverse within an organization. As gamer and podcaster Kate Sanchez pointed out, it shouldn’t be up to those diverse employees at organizations to be the ones opening doors or calling in favors. Inclusion is everyone’s job. 

9. Move beyond identity as the story.

For too long, the diverse identity in media and entertainment has become the story. In the session on how Muslims are portrayed in media moderated by Zaheer Ali, writer Sahar Jahani suggested: “the story is not about being Muslim. we have to move beyond ‘I’m Muslim and I have trouble identifying.'” Maysoon Zayid shared how uplifting it was to play a character on the soap opera General Hospital who was a lawyer and happens to be disabled because Maysoon herself is disabled. The Hulu show Ramy takes a similar approach, featuring a character who happens to be disabled, and they talk about his disability candidly – but the show is not about his disability. We heard similar perspectives from actor Nicole Brewer in a session about bringing more diversity to theater and by author Samina Ali and book festival director Joy Pope in our discussion about showcasing more diverse voices in publishing as well.

10. Skip the eye contact & traditional requirements.

When you hear about the need to change “the system” when it comes to diversity, it’s not always easy to understand what that actually means in practice. Through the summit, though, there were some brilliantly concrete suggestions from speakers on how to do exactly that. Venture capitalist Allyson Kapin, for example, suggested during Frank Gruber’s panel on diversity in funding that one way to help more diverse startup founders get considered for funding is to drop the old school criteria of whether the founders attending an elite school like Harvard or Stanford. Jose Velasco, head of SAP’s pioneering Autism at Work program, offered another lesson when it comes to hiring neurodiverse candidates: share your questions ahead of the interview (so they can better prepare beforehand) and let them know that they don’t have to maintain eye contact for an entire interview, which can be difficult for some candidates.

11. Take people with you.

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Each of us has a chance to be the one who opens doors of opportunity for others. Particularly for others who don’t share the same race or gender as you. Denise Hamilton, founder of Watch Her Work, shared some of her lessons on how to empower all women to handle difficult situations. Maysoon Zayid talked about having clauses in her contract requiring shows or films to hire a certain percentage of their crews from diverse backgrounds. Event professionals like Monica Sack (SXSW), Bonnie Stetz (National Association of Realtors) each shared similar stories of how they prioritize diversity when selecting speakers for the stage. Within my team, we also wanted to do more and so we created a program to help event planners connect with and find great diverse speakers to create more inclusive events. Learn more about Non-Obvious Speakers >>

12. Innovate and lead like a disabled person.

What if disability were treated as an asset in the workplace instead of a liability? This was one of the provocative questions we explored in a session about what disabled people can teach the rest of us about working together. One lesson that emerged from the discussion was that the disabled are master collaborators because they have to be in order to get things done. This is a powerful lesson in vulnerability and resourcefulness that any leader could learn from. Tiffany Yu (Diversability), Charlotte McClain Nhalpo (World Bank) and Christina Ryan (Disability Leadership Institute) all offered similar lessons for how, within organizations, the real power of bringing in people with disabilities comes not from asking them to conform to the group, but rather to appreciate their unique abilities as being an asset.

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#1 WSJ & USAToday Bestselling Author

Rohit is the author of 8 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.

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