everyone gets a voice | interview with jennifer brown

Founder, President & CEO, Jennifer Brown Consulting

You are an award winning entrepreneur, a passionate speaker and a diversity and inclusion expert. You help leaders foster healthier, more productive workplace cultures in which every employee is, and these are your words: “welcomed, valued, respected and heard” and ultimately that drives innovation and business. You also wrote a fantastic book that everybody should read: Inclusion. Diversity, the new workplace and the will to change. Welcome to Project Inclusion!


Q. You’ve gone through a very unique path to get here. How did you end up being an expert in inclusion?

Most of us don’t start out doing this, we end up in it through a variety of paths. I was a nonprofit activist in my 20s, so I always knew I needed to do something that really mattered and made life better for others. But I was also musical and I wanted to become a performer in New York. That was the the area that I needed to explore, so I moved there and did vocal training, but ran into some difficulties. My voice didn’t have a lot of stamina. I had to give that up, figure out what else I was going to do, and somebody recommended that I look into leadership development — I was a performer, I liked to train, so they suggested I might make a great corporate trainer.

Then I discovered this world that I really love, and that I worked in for a long time, which is leadership development — learning and development, front of the room facilitation — which is a great fit for me. I’m also a member of the LGBT community, so I was always active in the “inclusion in the workplace” conversation, but on the side of my leadership development work. Then I started my own company around the leadership space, and at the same time began to weave in my LGBT identity, so I thought I could point my leadership development work towards the goal of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in workplaces, which is a problem I study all the time. I realized I could bring my LGBT identity to that.

I ended up specializing in this space, to the point of writing a book called Inclusion — which came out two weeks after the election, and supports this whole idea that many of us value, which is that we all want to bring more of our full selves to our work and into our life in general. We need institutions that welcome us to do that.


It’s been a great journey. You could never have planned anything that circuitous, but in hindsight these things that happen to us make sense; one door closes but another opens. All we can really do is try to listen and and respond in the way that the universe wants us to.


Q. It fascinates me that, because you lost your operatic voice, but you ended up using your voice on behalf of all these people.

Having worked with so many organizations that are trying to bring inclusion into their DNA, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to make that happen?

If we presume that the leadership of a company is progressive because they’re not racist or homophobic, or they get women’s issues, etc. that can actually be dangerous, because it leads us to the assumption that inclusiveness is just going to happen because someone’s well intended.


Yet good intentions have nothing to do with the experience of inclusion or exclusion inside an organization; people are people, and they are unaware of their biases. And even if they are aware of them — which is a big “if” — they don’t know how to correct around them, how to adjust their behaviors, or why they should do it. It sounds obvious, but the status quo is powerful, inertia is powerful, power is powerful. Many people think if they make room for the diversity conversation that will mean there’s less for them.

We’re trying to bring this new level of understanding and commitment to those in power by explaining how important this is for their business. But there’s a lot of resistance along the lines that I’ve described. On the plus side, there’s more diversity the lower you go in an organization. A lot of those folks are our clients: people who are pushing from the bottom up within an organization, saying “We’re here. We want to thrive here, have a voice and be empowered.”

Sometimes there’s a disconnect between leadership and everybody else, but we also see cases of wonderful alignment between the two. There are CEOs who are very forward on these things, who are really doing the work, who’ve been driving this message and then have been backing it up with action; employees that are happy, thriving, and that don’t feel their diversity and identity is an impediment to their success. I’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of companies like that, but I know there are always challenges, even in the best and most effective organizations.

The vast majority of companies, however, are so early in their journey that they don’t know what D&I means to them, they haven’t defined it. They haven’t built it into their corporate values. The leadership isn’t driving the conversation and, if they are, it might be behind closed doors and only in response to litigation. They haven’t understood that this is a strategic differentiator — it’s something that your talent wants to hear from you and they want to see you take action about it — not just doing lip service, or infusing it into your messaging and corporate communications.


Q. Do you have any advice for people getting to this phase, trying to make a difference in their organization? How can they become champions of change in their own workplaces, regardless of whether there’s a plan in place or not?

People can lead from wherever they are in the hierarchy, no matter who they are. This is not just an area for women, people of color, LGBTQ people, people with diverse abilities, etc. I would like to see more people who hold a lot of privilege standing up for inclusion around all issues, and not leaving all the work to people who are maybe alone in the effort. That’s a big paradigm shift.

It’s still important for people to find their own voice, and use it. If you are the only one, or underrepresented in your company — whether you’re a team of 10 or a company of 20,000 — you’re always going to be seeking more people within your community, and asking certain questions if you don’t see them.

If you’re one person, and you look around and don’t see a lot of people who look like you, you could bring some really powerful messages to your leadership. You could talk about your experience around being hired, about the everyday culture at the company, and what it feels like to be the only one; hearing certain jokes or comments, or learning about decisions or emails that you’re not included on. Identifying bias and helping others understand how it impacts you, as well as others who may not be in the room, is a really important way to use your voice.

You could help your company see they need to make this matter a priority, because focusing on and being proactive about this is a great way to attract talent. The hope is that the leadership agrees and wants to do more, or starts talking about equity and belonging more openly. It might start with a lunch and learn teaching people about Diversity & Inclusion 101. An external speaker could be brought in to educate the executive team.

Ideally, however, it’s important to get the issues to the top to start the conversation. Anybody who leads change knows that real support needs to come from a position of power, and so it’s very important to educate leaders. It’s difficult to accomplish anything if you don’t have those in power engaged, caring about things, and fighting for a change. That effort can still be initiated from wherever: using your own story, or being an ally and telling the story of others who are feeling excluded, thus using your privilege in a positive way.

I’d like to see more of us speaking up about workplace culture, about what we’re noticing in it that’s exclusionary. If there’s some bad behavior going on, you should absolutely speak up and alert people; we are in an age where transparency is critical for organizations, so they can give and be given the chance to do the right thing.

That’s happening more and more, but we have a long way to go. It’s about making the workplace a space where diverse talent would want to stay. There’s a lot of interesting research on where do women of color thrive, for example, and where do they struggle. What are the unique biases that come at people with multiple identities? What are the dynamics there? The sheer exhaustion people can feel when no one lets them forget that they’re the only one hurts. “Did this person say this because I’m black, because I’m a woman, or because I identify as a member of the queer community?” The not knowing chips away at a relationship with an employer, and leads to a lot of retention and engagement issues, which ultimately hits the bottom line.

Everybody has a threshold, and a company that’s completely inactive on all these things is going to have a problem attracting and retaining all kinds of talent. Silence and a lack of action speak volumes on these matters, and you’re going to run into trouble if you don’t have a message on diversity and inclusion. Right now employees want to hear that, they value and look for that. It’s a conspicuously absent thing when nobody’s talking about it.


Q. You’re saying that an organization needs to have a plan and awareness in place, but at the same time every individual has a responsibility in creating an inclusive workplace.

Yes. There’s also the people in the middle, whom we call the frozen middle. We’ve got this great energy bubbling up at the top, with the discourse of “people are everything!”, and then there’s the middle managers. Any change effort, not just in the diversity world, gets stuck in the middle because people have their day jobs, they’ve got their deliverables, and the pressure on middle managers is real, so D&I is looked at as “another thing I have to do now”.

Unfortunately, it takes somewhat sophisticated thinking to realize that this will help managers be better leaders, build better teams, get their work done, and build a better product. This is not just a feel good exercise. The communication trickles down from the top, however, and it gets watered down, which makes some people feel that it’s just an exercise, and they do the bare minimum. And that’s not going to change cultures fast enough.


Q. Can you talk about the ERGs, [Employee Resource Groups] and how they’ve become such a powerful tool for change in an organization? Are there any other tools out there that are proving to be effective?

ERGs are diversity networks by identity, typically formed in larger companies — although I’m seeing more and more of them created at smaller organizations. It’s just a matter of critical mass. Fortune 50 companies that have about 200,000 employees, can have 40,000 people alone in the LGBT network, between the ones who identify as LGBT and their allies. The numbers are enormous, and in big corporate environments there are veterans groups, LGBTQ groups, Black networks, Hispanic networks, Asian networks, Women’s networks, Diverse Abilities or Disability networks. There are even Generational and Multi-Generation networks.

These groups are empowered to participate. They don’t own the company, but they definitely help guide and resource recruiting for diverse talent, on-boarding, retention, and create an understanding of what makes the culture welcoming to a certain community, and how can it do better. That provides real value, because companies are often blind to these things. ERGs provide a first person experience of what it feels like to be working there as a person of color, as a woman of color, or as an LGBTQ individual, for example. Individuals are given an opportunity to explain what’s working for them, where they feel a disconnect, etc. And that’s extremely valuable information. When an ERG doesn’t exist, maybe in a smaller company, or even in a big company with no D&I activity you can discern, you could start by putting together a steering committee, for example.

In small companies that have a diversity committee, sometimes it feels like everyone is on it [laughs]; but that’s fine, because it’s about generating that cadence of meeting. People start thinking about ways to reach diverse talent, diversify the hiring process, etc. A basic blocking and tackling around how a small business grows. On the other hand, if you have a diversity committee where you don’t see people of color, the best place to start would be educating that group about whiteness and equity. There are some great books written about this topic.

Bigger company that are doing nothing can gather an ERG for all diverse talent; and then propose to have meetings, invite decision makers and senior people to come in, and share the minutes from those meetings with them. If HR and legal try to shut it down — which they shouldn’t do — invite them, make sure you’re partnering with people that matter in your organization. This is never a place to complain per se, it’s about helping our company treat us, and people like us, the best that they can: to include us in the most meaningful ways for us — to hire us, to attract us, to retain us, and to market to our demographic.

Diverse customer bases are probably the fastest growing and most lucrative market, so if you’re a PepsiCo or any kind of company with a B or C business model, this is critical.

First it’s thinking about it, and then positioning the purpose for the conversation that way. Complaints will happen, so it’s important to be able to have an honest conversation with other members of that group. To say: “oh, you heard that too”; or “why don’t we have this policy?”, “I can’t get these benefits”, or “we need to make a statement”, or try to get a good score on the HRC, which is one of the benchmarks we use in the LGBT community for positive workplaces.

Nevertheless, it’s not about complaining. It’s capacity building and identification of challenges; figuring out who we are going to enlist. We have the power to change very large organizations. Sometimes it just takes one person who knows what the issues are, to raise that all the way up the flagpole, and make senior leaders get on board, decide to launch ERGs and get a diversity council going.

These days everybody knows D&I is an issue, and most people at least acknowledge that they don’t know where to start, but also know that they should.


Q. Being diverse internally will give you a better understanding of your audience. If you’re not inclusive inside, how can you be inclusive on the outside to attract customers, and create inclusive products that represent everybody?

It starts with the planning, product, and marketing teams that are designing a product. If those are homogeneous groups, then there’s going to be a lot of blind spots around the images used in campaigns, the language used and the product names, so when it’s launched it can be misunderstood and blow up in a company’s face.

PepsiCo had an ad featuring one of the Kardashian sisters, and it was like a Black Lives Matter simulated march. It was not pitched right. The Kardashian sister offers a Pepsi to one of the cops, and it’s just wrong on so many levels. We all wondered how did that get made, and how did it get so far through the creative process. There weren’t people with the right filters looking at the creative choices, or if there were, no one listened to them. Verna Myers always says: “Diversity is being asked to the party. Inclusiveness is being asked to dance”.

Just having diversity to check the box is not enough if people aren’t being asked for their input, or if that input isn’t taken seriously. This has got to go all the way. It can’t just be lip service; that could end up as a real PR disaster, after a company has spent millions of dollars. It could end up being a really embarrassing situation that could have been avoided if the right people had been involved from the beginning.


Q. It sounds like they should have invited those people to organize the party as well.

Or maybe invite them to the party so they can show off their best dancer [laughs].


Q. Do you see a trend, technology, or any promising change that we should be excited about?

Technology gets a bad rap when we talk about AI, jobs and the blessing and curse of automation, which is inevitably coming whether we like it or not. We should keep an eye on the technologies that are helping hiring managers, and others, hack their own bias. And literally there are resume scrubbing tools, there are tools that can flag gendered words — words that are said about women that aren’t said about men with the exact same performance.

There’s a company called Textio, which a lot of us really appreciate and some of my larger clients are using it, that helps highlight our everyday language biases. We’ve got to get smart about all those little things we do in meetings; whether we don’t notice that men are talking more than women, or don’t notice who’s not in the room. Maybe we’re making some promotion and advancement decisions and not considering any candidates of color but it doesn’t occur to anyone, or nobody has the courage to say it.

Technology is going to be able to show us what we’re doing every day; to tell us, for example, where are the biases that happen in our interviews. A John and a José have the same resume, and yet they have a vastly different chance of getting a second interview and getting hired. Not to take the responsibility off humans, but our biases are very big; sometimes they feel bigger than we are, and we’re all very busy.

People can claim they don’t have time to change the way they work, which is ridiculous, but it’s what I hear. Well, then technology is going to help us monitor our decisions, notice things we hadn’t noticed before; it’s going to hold us accountable so that we can develop new habits. Because new habits take repeated practice, to the point where we’re all vigilant for who’s not in the room, and who’s not saying anything.

It’s going to accelerate what is a very imperfect and slow process right now. I use trainings that teach people another way and, if it’s not scalable, it’s difficult. There needs to be something that makes people keep noticing, even after they leave the training classroom. That reinforcement of noticing, changing behavior, and developing new habits is going to accrue and help all of our workplace cultures in the future.

about jennifer

Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker and diversity and inclusion expert. She is the founder, president and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), a strategic leadership and diversity consulting firm that coaches business leaders worldwide on critical issues of talent and workplace strategy. Brown is a passionate advocate for social equality who delves into the “business case for diversity” as she helps businesses foster healthier, more productive workplace cultures.

With over a decade of experience consulting to Fortune 500 companies including Toyota, Starbucks, and Capital One, Brown is a highly sought-after expert source on changing demographics, specific communities of identity including women, people of color, LGBT individuals, generations like Millennials, and the role of male leaders in change efforts.

Brown has appeared in leading media outlets such as The New York Times, Forbes, and The Wall Street Journal, and on Fox News. In the past several years, she has been named Social Entrepreneur of the year by the NYC National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), a finalist for the Wells Fargo Business Owner of the Year Award, a finalist for Ernst & Young’s Winning Women Program, one of the Top 40 Outstanding Women by Stonewall Community Foundation, and NYC Controller Bill Thompson’s LGBT Business Owner of the Year.

Brown’s book Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change (Publish Your Purpose Press, 2017), inspires leadership to embrace the opportunity that diversity represents and empowers advocates at all levels to find their voice and be a driving force in creating more enlightened organizations that resonate in a fast-changing world.

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Twitter: @jenniferbrown

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