We interviewed mentor, speaker, networking expert, social entrepreneur, and business coach Sheryl Grant. We discussed the best (and worst) approaches to diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI). Grant, who spent 30+ years working in Corporate America with companies like Hewlett Packard, Dell, Yahoo!, Boeing, and many others, was “oftentimes the only woman in the room and definitely the only Black woman.” Grant shared her expert advice, equal parts thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Below you will find our most important takeaways from Grant’s interview, and while many of these statements may be challenging for some folks to read, they are the most important and most actionable.
Glass ceiling vs. a brick wall
Grant began the interview with an incredibly insightful metaphor to help me – and hopefully you – level-set on where DEI work begins:
We talk about glass ceilings, but it’s not glass; it’s cement. And if you know anything about glass versus cement, glass is hard to break, but it is penetrable if you find a weak spot. But with brick, you need to go one by one; it's much harder to penetrate, and with brick penetrating, it is the beginning, not the end.
Grant's metaphor is quite simple and one that makes complete sense given the context and any initial visualization. Still, it remains a powerful image lodged in my head even a couple of weeks beyond our interview. The key takeaway here is a subtle but powerful one – DEI is not a program, it’s a practice; it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon; it’s not a chapter, it’s a volume of books.
This is so important, to begin with because leaders and organizations need to manage their expectations. Having no clear end in sight does not make these efforts futile, and having this clarity will lead to more innovative programs and better-calibrated expectations.
There may not be a finish line, and that’s ok. There is, though, a starting point: education.
Education is the starting point for effective DEI efforts
Education leads people to be aware of different perspectives and backgrounds. And for effective DEI efforts to initiate, we must integrate our “bubbles” as Grant explained:
It’s how the Internet works – it's based on algorithms. You create your reality based on what you like.
For example, I'm creating my reality, and it's vanilla. Somebody else creates their reality, and it's strawberry. And if you never cross-pollinate those, your reality stays in your bubble. So for us to break out of those bubbles, there has to be an education piece. There has to be a way to cross-pollinate. You've got to educate yourself to integrate those bubbles because if you're not, then you still live in your bubble with no progress.
Education sets the table and levels the playing field for everybody.
DEI teams must be diverse
Education is the starting point, but if your DEI team is not diverse, education is all you will ever get. It is crucial to building a community, as Grant shared:
I'm a firm believer in community. It starts with communication like we are right now. So we have a connection with each other, which allows us to collaborate. We then can think outside of the box on how we can build strong DEI efforts and community.
The power is in the community.
This was evident for me during the election. Black women focused on grassroots efforts by knocking on doors to get people to vote. But if you just take the concept of that, not getting on the political side, just the idea that we come together, we can really see the outcomes.
The new currency is community.
To get to these solutions or towards an effective DEI path, we must focus on community. We have to champion the unique opportunity of collaborating, but the community must be diverse to fill in the education with noted experiences:
When DEI teams form, and 99% of the people look the same, even if they are well-read, that's not DEI. Where’s the diversity?
Once there is a change in framework with the representation of diverse communities, there can be a true conversation that moves the pendulum for the future to have the impact.
The meetings and efforts that bring different lived experiences will help the different perspectives come up with truly impactful outcomes.
Start with education, but create change by sharing diverse lived experiences
Education alone will not create lasting change. Education will help people know new things, but lasting change requires that people also feel new things.
There’s a difference between education and experience, between knowing something and feeling something. The real change comes when everyone on your DEI team and company move from knowing to feeling, and that shift occurs when diverse, empowered individuals share their lived experiences.
Grant had many examples to stress the importance of this point, but it is an example from Percent Pledge that we want to share with you.
At Percent Pledge, we have a small team but very diverse team across race, gender, and sexuality. And to be transparent, this was not necessarily by design – but it is certainly something we cherish. The day before my conversation with Grant, one of our team members shared a New York Times article on the “Wave of Anti-Transgender Legislation.” Everyone responded with appreciation and support (and a lot of emojis) for this teammate, who is a member of the transgender community. His response, “Thank y’all for being coworkers that I can share things with like this and who care about these important issues,” was great, but also somewhat saddening that our support was at all noteworthy.
We shared that mixed emotion with this team member and asked if he was comfortable sharing this with Grant during our interview because it felt like a nuanced real-life example that she might be smart about. He said yes, and that to provide more context, support like our team provided was far from normal in his professional past. He shared many experiences, and one in particular that left me speechless: “I left one former employer after only a year because my manager would not stop introducing me to key external stakeholders as the Office Tranny.”
This seemed to encapsulate the difference between education and experience. Our team knew about these bills and knew that any legislation would treat one person as less than was inherently wrong. But it was not until he shared those lived experiences that we moved from knowing to feeling.
DEI from cost-center to innovation hub and growth center
When a diverse team comes together, so do different perspectives, experiences, thought processes, strategies, ideas, etc. Inevitably, leaving room for growth and, as Grant explained, leading to more creative outcomes and results:
What is DEI designed for? Why are diversity, equity, and inclusion important? Believe it or not, when you're more diverse as a company, it creates more opportunities for innovation. And innovation leads to profit.
As companies reach their profit ceilings, they should be breaking through them by tapping into different demographics, expanding their model, expanding their reach, expanding their thought process.
One thing about the African-American community is that we are consumers. We are the top consumers for trendy technology, clothes, etc. We're just consumers by nature. That means a lot to businesses because they want those consumers to do business with them.
So, to break through profit ceilings, your target market needs to mirror your diverse team. And “it's very important for consumers to be represented in your product,” as consumers are becoming conscious and smart with the companies they support.
Having a diverse and inclusive team empowers innovation in products, services, marketing, and even target markets, inherently creating more opportunities for growth and profitability.
Incentivize ongoing action
DEI is a practice (vs. a program), so it requires much more than a few teachings and trainings. To successfully build your DEI practice, employees must be incentivized to do this ongoing work versus viewing it as more being added to their to-do list. And this starts with leadership, as Grant explains through sharing recent examples of companies she has worked with:
I'm working with a couple of companies now that are implementing DEI for the first time. They did a tremendous job in the beginning; everyone was gung ho during the trainings. But then, when it came down to doing the work - because it is work and they had to do it in addition to their existing responsibilities, and they weren’t getting paid to do DEI work, nothing happened.
Employees must have some skin in the game, starting with leadership and making this important work part of the KPIs, business outcomes, etc. Then it becomes to have a different meaning. Then people want to do the work because their bonus might now depend on it.
That is how you change behavior. That is how you make DEI more than just a commitment in words; more than putting a Black face or a woman on a picture and saying we're diverse. It has to be so much deeper than that, which requires leadership to incentivize behavior change.
Don’t forget the past, but design for the future
As discussed earlier, we must educate ourselves and build a diverse community around ourselves to begin with these effective DEI efforts. But this is only the start, as Grant described:
Our history, learn from it. Our reality, pay attention to it. Our future, create it. And that only comes when we come together as a community. It’s the only way it is going to happen.
And we have to go in with that mindset. The question becomes, how do we create a framework where there's inclusivity and acceptance for all?
To build a DEI strategy, focus on the future you want to see and create, not the past. Just like school curriculums are built, we learn from history to ensure we don’t repeat it. We can’t forget about the past, but we also can’t build strategies from it.
Learn more about Grant, CEO and Founder of Sheryl Grant International, and her work here.