Last September, Interbrand — the world’s leading brand consultancy — invited me to speak at its 2017 Best Global Brands Summit.

Now in its 18th year, the event brought together C-suite executives, celebrities, and media to celebrate the 100 leading brands of 2017, the value they bring to the world, and how each paves the way for innovation and growth. I took the stage alongside some of the world’s leading speakers to discuss “Growth in a Changing World” through the lenses of People, Technology, and Brand.

Afterwards, Paola Norambuena, Chief Communications Officer at Interbrand, pulled me aside for a more intimate discussion.

Watch the video below, or scroll down to read the transcript of our conversation.

In this interview, you’ll learn: 

– How I found the courage to bring my whole self to work
– Why diversity is important for future generations
– Why everyone has a diversity story, even those you might not expect (and how to tap into yours)
– What it really means to be an inclusive leader
– How to be an ally for those who need your voice
– Why Diversity & Inclusion needs to be a transparent process
– How the definition of diversity is evolving, and why we all need to pay attention

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: Hi, I’m Paola. I’m the chief communications officer at Interbrand, and I have the great pleasure of being here today with Jennifer Brown, who’s the author of the book Inclusion.




PAOLA NORAMBUENA: So the topic that we’re covering today is one that is very personal to me, but I think should be personal for everybody — and that is diversity. And particularly the impact of diversity on brands and organizations around the world.

So my first question is: You mention the importance of diversity inside of an organization so that people can bring to work their full self. Tell me a bit about that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, I’m a member of the LGBT community, and I was closeted at work for many years. The whole process of minimizing a stigmatized identity was something that I then discovered is shared across all different kinds of underrepresented talent. And so it came from a personal experience of having to struggle to get the courage to bring my whole self to work in my job, in my profession, and now as an entrepreneur and an author.

I’m the most out I’ve ever been, but it’s a message that really resonates with everyone, whether your diversity is visible or invisible, whether people stereotype you, maybe incorrectly.

I find, still, when I walk out on stage that people don’t exactly know who I am, and it sort of checks their biases when I share more about my life. It’s a very valuable learning opportunity.

So we’ve got to create those moments, I think, and they’re a combination of our own courage to share something, so revealing that not just for ourselves, but honestly, other people need to see leaders that look like more of a wider variety of leader. And that’s important for future generations.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: And so much of what we’re talking about here today is how the best global brands are helping their organizations grow. That, obviously, means the people. That’s very, very important. But leaders have such a responsibility here.

You mentioned that leaders need to do a little bit of personal work and actually bring that to the organization because they have to set the example.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: How can they do that?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, leaders are often, in corporate America, they are not a diverse group. Typically, they are white, they are male, they are cisgender, they’re of a certain age. And so it’s a little harder — a lot harder — for people to be a leader on inclusion, because it’s not something you can draw on necessarily from your experience.

However, I always argue everyone has a diversity story, even the white guys. And you laugh about it, but it’s really true. I mean, every time I speak, people come up and share things with me that are challenges, obstacles — socioeconomic background, disabilities, learning issues, being in a multicultural marriage or family, having grown up all over the world.

So there’s a lot of diversity that all of us bring, but executives need to open themselves up to exploring that story and then utilizing it as a tool in their leadership because it signals to your workforce that you are a leader who’s done your work and you’re comfortable talking about it, and it’s important to you that others are seen and heard.

Even if you felt seen and heard to a greater degree because you were in the majority, it is so important right now to focus on the “other,” across difference, to say, “I’m a leader for everyone, and I am learning from you.”

And, honestly, they’re switching that energy so that it’s not always the leader that knows best. In some things, yes, but I think more and more, the workforce should be driving what kinds of leaders we are because we’re in service to them.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: So this is a new idea of leadership, it may challenge a lot of people typically.

JENNIFER BROWN: Indeed. Even if it means, hey, I’m still learning. Here, I’m an ally, and I want to say that word and I want to be a champion for those that have less of a voice than I might have had in my life, or by the way, I have a marginalized identity that you don’t even see when you look at me. It’s sharing that.

And then also, it’s, frankly, taking a stand about what’s happening in the world. I think more and more companies and leaders in particular, their personal brand is wrapped up with what they do and how they respond to issues that are causing angst and sadness and fear in their workforce. I don’t need to go into those, but there are so many.

People are bringing pain and fear into the workplace, and then we’re expecting them to drop it at the door.


JENNIFER BROWN: And we’re not going to do our best work if, you know, these things are on our hearts and minds. And it really goes a long way for a leader to say, “I hear you, I know what’s going on, we believe in you, this is an inclusive place, and we want you to bring your whole self to work. Tell me if you’re not, and tell me if you’re struggling with that, and that’s my job to fix it.”

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: That’s great. Given that this is so important, and there may be a lot of layers hidden in each of us and in organizations, how transparent — how quick is the process, and how transparent is the process?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I think you get a lot of credit for trying. I work with a lot of executive teams and CEOs who’ve done nothing on this historically and are just starting.

I think intent really matters, but I don’t think intent is enough.

You really need to start peeling the onion and doing things like unconscious bias training, conversations about including what I might say are diversity and inclusion competencies in every leadership conversation.

Measure your leaders on what their teams look like: Who’s getting promoted, how diverse their teams are, and how successful their products are as a result. There’s a lot of ways to look at it, and we’re still kind of sorting those out and making them very measurable, but in the future, diverse teams make better products, and we will be able to see that.

We need more diverse leadership teams in companies, because otherwise we’re not going to be able to attract and retain talent.

So these things take time, but I think that this is why every little move should be celebrated and publicized and say, “And by the way, this isn’t enough. We want more. Our goal is this.” And they can set targets, just talk about your problem.

Even if you’ve got no diversity on your executive team, even just saying, “I’m not okay with that, and I pledge, and so does the board, and so does my team, that we’re going to change that.” And then the learning really begins.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: That’s great. And an important level of transparency in an organization.

So my last question is: Given that there are so many layers of diversity — that it can be disabilities, it can be many things. What we’re finding is that, very often, those people have a very unique skill that is very powerful, but we still have systems in organizations that measure a little bit “one size fits all.” Right? So I may not be terribly social, but I may be very, very good at this, but I might not track on the thing that you’re measuring.

How should companies be thinking about how to truly help people measure up to the metrics that they set that may just not fit me in that way?

JENNIFER BROWN: You bring up a really interesting evolution of the way we even talk about diversity traditionally has been a binary — so you’re black or you’re white.


JENNIFER BROWN: You know, or you’re one nationality or you are a woman or a man. Even in gender identity and expression, many people will tell you, “I’m gender nonconforming, I’m gender fluid.” So where does that leave us in terms of we still need to be able to count people, I think. And in the old school of building strategies in HR, for example, they need to know how big the community is.

As a member of the LGBT community, I can tell you, most of us don’t feel comfortable checking that box.

Many people with different abilities, mental and physical disabilities that aren’t visible will not tell their employer. And so we still have a culture of fear that’s preventing that.

It’s a really interesting moment where we need people to disclose and we need to create a very specific identity in order to understand where the problem is and what we need to do to shift it, but at the same time, they just don’t work anymore. You know, benefits traditionally have been oriented not for a family of the future. We still have men not taking paternity leave even though it’s offered because it’s very, very stigmatized.

We’re still hiring in our own image based on what made me successful, I’m going to look for that skill set, I’m going to hire somebody from that school, I can’t risk hiring outside of what I’m comfortable with, right? For this high-stakes opportunity.

Or an assumption like, “Oh, the woman doesn’t want that global assignment because she just had children recently.”

Bias creeps into all of these decisions and harms, I think, the potential of so many people because we do have these systems that are outdated.

The workforce is still really hierarchical, and that really harms — frankly, the most diverse part of your organization is the bottom third, and yet they can’t get their ideas up and they can’t — without having to sort of crawl through many layers of management and bureaucracy.

So we really need to revisit, I think, even the very structure of companies so that we can solicit more wisdom, because we really need that wisdom.

In a crazy, unpredictable world, you’re going to need every single contribution — especially the nontraditional ones — in order to see around the corner and solve things in unconventional ways, which is what’s going to be needed.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: Something that I think most of us would welcome, everyone should welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we would.

PAOLA NORAMBUENA: Thank you so very much for your time.


PAOLA NORAMBUENA: I really appreciate it.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a pleasure.