7 min read
As is the case for so many BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of color) business leaders, Dee C. Marshall’s efforts to cultivate greater workplace diversity don’t begin and end in Black History Month. Though she certainly appreciates that every February brings a uniquely captive audience.
Over a recent Zoom call from her home in Newark, N.J., on a chilly winter morning, Marshall — whose decade-plus of bona fides include running her leadership-training firm Diverse & Engaged, sitting on numerous community organizations’ Boards of Directors, serving on New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s 2017 transition team and assisting Michelle Obama with her Let’s Move campaign — eagerly assessed which way the winds are blowing for a more equitable future among all workers, business owners and aspiring executives.
As Mashall sees it, the road ahead isn’t without potholes, but the solutions for paving over them are as accessible as taking our blinders off.
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Have you been bending anyone in Congress’ ear about whether broader workplace diversity and assistance for minority-run businesses might make strides under President Biden’s administration?
Yes and no, because it’s unofficial, but I have been in contact with at least two members of Congress since Biden and Kamala Harris went in, and those are both members who are advocating for small businesses and communities of color.
Just anecdotally, do they see reason for optimism on those fronts?
The answer is yes. Remember, the first round of [PPP] funding was not inclusive at all of the carve-out for small business, communities of color or women. It wasn’t even allowed. So, even members of Congress who wanted to support small businesses, Main Street businesses, women-owned businesses, communities of color — they couldn’t the last go-round. This go-round, they’re advocating specifically for that commitment to women- and minority-owned businesses.
Have you been particularly besieged of late with requests for help from companies suddenly waking to the crisis of diversity and inequity in business?
Oh my god, Kenny, we’re in a significant growth spurt as of May or June of last year — as of George Floyd being murdered. What happened is the corporate private sector spoke out, and then they started following up with not just speaking out and messaging, but they made donations and commitments to communities of color. So we were getting all the calls, because now those big businesses, particularly Fortune 500 businesses, doubled back on diversity. Before that happened, at the beginning of Covid, they were downsizing [efforts] in equity, diversity and inclusion. Prior to May 2020, when they made their statements, that’s who was getting hit first.
Why, in your view, does this kind of revelation continue to be so late-coming for so many influential people in business?
Some of it is just bias and blinders and people not knowing what we don’t know: being uneducated to the history of our country. I even have white friends who are downright angry at their ancestors who contributed to oppression of different groups of people, Black people in particular. People of color knew and understood that we matter, and that we should matter in the workplace.
Another side of it is blatant racism. And I’m only saying what is now common conversation. The third thing is these daily microaggressions and people being comfortable with their in-group. That’s the range of things that create the space that we’re in now, where diversity has to be a thing, and it’s not automatic and natural. Before last May, it would be challenging for Latinx people to have these conversations in corporate [settings]; it would be challenging for Asian or native American to have blatant conversations about how they don’t feel comfortable at work. Amy Cooper is a case study, because where does she work? She works in super conservative corporate America. She’s been a decision-maker in the room in terms of promotions. So, if she’s interviewing me and I don’t get the job, what’s that about? What Amy Cooper gave us is a dotted line to say, “Oh, racism does exist in America, and it lives in corporate America, because here she is.” They’re liabilities right now.
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So when you’re taking on a new client, how do you start breaking down for them how to be more conscientious?
Three things: I share with them the “why,” what it looks like and where it started. If we’re talking to business owners, it’s: What’s the business case for diversity? It should be that you don’t need a business case, that it’s the right thing to do. But if you’re a small business and you’re trying to do business with big businesses, they’re going to ask you how diverse your company is. So the “why” is helping businesses understand that you’re now going to be held accountable to diversify, where before, if you thought you were a privately owned company and did not have to participate, that was OK. The accountability is going to come from public scrutiny. You’ve got high reputational risk. You’re going to get called out on social media right now, and then you’re going to take a hit. Goldman Sachs said they’re no longer taking companies public if you don’t have diversity on your board. So, where I start is helping clients understand the “why.” Like, “Hey dude, here’s your blind spot for your business.”
Second, I help them understand that to stay around and be innovative and scale your business, you need cognitive diversity, and it’s going to come with diverse people. And then we start bias training, just self-awareness. I share my own bias, and I tell leaders, “I want you to do a seven-day audit, a 21-day audit. Just be aware of your thoughts and what you’re thinking when [bias] shows up, but don’t force it.”
How much difference can it make when individuals across the BIPOC, LGBTQ et al spectrum collaborate to help make these kinds of in-roads in awareness?
You bring up such a good point, and it’s extremely important for a coalition of all people with dimensions of diversity to come together — LGBTQ, disabled people, veterans, women, people of color. Because there’s power in numbers, and if we all still stay in our silos, then we’re not being inclusive — we’re being exclusive, even within our inclusive spaces. It’s extremely important when it comes to dismantling systemic racism and barries, and it’s important that that becomes work on Capitol Hill. In fact, that’s the intention of the National Association of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, or NAEDI. That’s how laws are introduced, bills are passed. And so we would go all together collectively to break down silos across industries and sectors to advocate for inclusive environments where all people feel welcome and respected.