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This episode was recorded live at the SXSW Conference and features a conversation between Jennifer and journalist and producer Monika Samtani as they discuss a roadmap for action to address systemic inequities and build a more inclusive future. Discover the personal traits inclusive leaders must develop to lead through change and uncertainty and become allies and advocates in their communities and workplaces.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
MONIKA SAMTANI: If you genuinely want to know, maybe there’s just a way to ask. Because, once you open that door to that conversation, it’s really, again, to me, that human centric piece that I just want to get to know you better and I want to understand.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you told me you were doing that years ago-
MONIKA SAMTANI: I did that in-
JENNIFER BROWN: … your first gay friend or whatever at work-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, my first gay friend. It was in the early ’90s and, in the newsroom back in DC, we used to, weirdly, have our desks facing each other. Two and two, it was interesting. So, this gentleman who was sitting across from me named Scott, one day I looked at him and I said, “Scott, can I ask you something? Because no one’s ever talked to me about what it means to be gay and I really just don’t understand it,” it was early ’90s. And he said, “You know, I’m so glad you asked me because no one ever asks me.” And so, we ended up becoming, till this day, such good friends.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will to Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, best-selling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards the new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and, therefore, more productive workplaces ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advise top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now, on to the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will to Change, this is Doug Foresta. This episode was originally recorded live at the 2022 South by Southwest Conference and features a conversation between Jennifer and journalist and producer Monika Samtani as they discuss a roadmap for action to address systemic inequities and build a more inclusive future. Before we join in on the conversation, I just want to say a few things about Monica, just introduce her. Monika is the CEO of Ms. Media, she’s co-founder of the Fem Word and managing partner of CATALYST Media Fund. She is an award-winning media and entertainment professional for nearly three decades. She is well regarded as the first professional South Asian broadcast journalist at the CBS station in Washington DC in the early 1990s and, in the conversation, you’ll hear her reference her experiences at that CBS station. And now, onto the episode.
We have the fabulous Jennifer Brown here. Jennifer is the founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting which focuses on designing workplace strategies that have been implemented by some of the biggest companies and nonprofits in the world. Jennifer discovered her passion for diversity and inclusion work in her 20s when she was forced to abandon her dream of being an opera singer after a voice injury. As a member of the LGBT community, Jennifer knows what it’s like for a person to minimize or hide aspects of their true self in the workplace for fear of not being fully embraced. Jennifer has courageously shared her story to embolden others to take action to create a more inclusive world. She is a best-selling author, a sought after speaker and host of the popular podcast The Will to Change.
And then we’re also joined by Monika Samtani, president of Ms. Media, she does publicity and presentation coaching. She is the founder of The Fem Word which is an online publication broadcasting stories of bold women everywhere run by teens and college aged girls. She is a film and television producer currently working on a narratively driven LGBT comedic TV series that’s under development. She’s also launching a production company focused on authentically inclusive representation and creating a pathway for women of color and diverse talent. So excited to welcome these two ladies, please give them a round of applause.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you
MONIKA SAMTANI: Hello, hello.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello, hello.
MONIKA SAMTANI: This is fun. Thank you so much all for being here. I hope you’re enjoying it already, I am. So, the book is Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways to Build a More Inclusive World.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Talk about the format of the book because I think that that’s what makes this book so special, right? Where did the idea come from and how do you find that it’s so different than the other DEI publications out there?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, the origin of the book is important. There was a summit called the Beyond Diversity Summit and you’ll meet Rohit, my co-author, in a moment. But there were 200 speakers over a period of five days and the goal was to be as maximally diverse as possible in ways even I definitely stretched my own understanding of different identities. And out of that, we felt there was so many beautiful stories that needed to be shared and storytellers who we could elevate. And so, that was the origin of the decision to write the book. But then, like you just referenced, we didn’t want to do it chapter one, LGBTQ, chapter two, women and gender. So, we decided instead to locate all of this wonderful content into 12 chapters about what I call domains of our life.
So, education, government, media, storytelling, identity, workplace, leadership. And it was a real challenge to write in that way, I loved getting out of the identity verticals and challenging myself and our team of writers to put the different stories and weave them together within each of these areas of our lives. And it’s so powerful, too, because now I hope that a reader will pick it up and say, that reader that might have resisted talking about identities, I’m hoping that you pick up a chapter on education and it hits you that this is a big part of my life, it’s not something that somebody else cares about. This is something that actually impacts me in all these things that I touch.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, and what we were talking about earlier is that it’s not a research book, it’s a do something book. And it’s really important because, when you pick up a book like this at first you’re like, “Oh, gosh. I’m going to have to take … It’s going to be studying and [inaudible 00:06:29],” and that’s a good thing but it’s not a research book. It’s super easy to read and understand and relate to in so many ways so I do like that about it. Why beyond though? So, in this context, what does that mean and really expand on the definition in your mind, Jennifer, of what is diversity? And not only that, take us back about the journey of DEI and how it’s evolved as well.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So, I’ve been in this work for more than 20 years. As a budding LGBT, we didn’t have the Q plus back then, it was just the four letters and we were fighting for domestic partner benefits in my early days for companies to offer them, basically, that was what we were putting our energy towards. And diversity really was the focus then, it was the who, the representation, the demographics and then the I snuck in there but it was always the second thing, D and I, and I for inclusion. And we started to say to ourselves, “Well, so, if I have the good diversity but what about the inclusion piece?
And will I lose that diversity if I’m not skilled and investing in inclusive environments where that diversity can thrive?” So, one is not good without the other, they are both necessary. And then, over the many years, the E has been added, so equity, and in many organizations we consult to now, it’s DEI. And so, equity and [inaudible 00:07:58] in the room wrote a wonderful book on equity, thank you for doing that. But equity is the system’s lens, equity is the questioning of how are the processes, policies and procedures perpetuating the harm and the bias unchecked.
So, the E was a really important addition to the D and I. And then, just to make it especially updated, B for belonging is another really big word in our work. And I love the B because, to me, belonging is the result of doing all this really well. It’s the result of the D being present, the eye being practiced, the E being implemented and that results in this deep sense of belonging where we can create from. I don’t believe we can create unless we feel a deep sense of psychological safety. So, beyond, I like beyond because there’s so much we don’t know still, we’ve got to challenge ourselves to … I’m learning about diversity dimensions every single day that I don’t know anything about. Neurodiversity is one thing that I’m endeavoring to educate myself about, mental health, caregivers and their experience and adding these things to the puzzle that I have a responsibility to educate companies about and that’s my job.
But beyond, how can we go beyond performative action, we say performative allyship in my world, which is, “Oh, Jennifer, I’m an ally. I’m going to wear my pin in June for pride.” We want to get beyond the performative and the superficial to get into the deep work that needs to happen so that we can all thrive in the system.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, as a leader, the way you can look at it is, I’m not just checking a box that I’ve got diversity but inclusion leading to belonging means that you actually feel like you’re a part of the work environment, a part of that family and not just that it was a box checked and you’re the number that they-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, you’re the token.
MONIKA SAMTANI: You’re the token. Absolutely. Why are you so passionate about social equity? Because in my mind, there are two experiences that hold marginalized or minority business owners back, the people back. One is, the obvious, racism. The other is being judged or underestimated or looking at stereotypes. So, in your mind, take us back a little bit about your journey. Why is this so important to you?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, I came out in my 20s, so this was the early ’90s and, even though I had grown up in a very privileged background, loving who I loved and standing up for that meant that, all of a sudden, I was acutely aware of my difference and how I was now in danger, I was now in danger of losing my job, I was in physical danger. So, it was a weird moment when I came out, I didn’t realize how deep it would shift me honoring who I love. And then learning that there is this enormously brave community that had been in existence for a long time, in many ways undercover and invisible, trying to be visible and feeling awakened. My activist heart, I think, was just so awakened by that and my feminism and all of it. And so, I think I cooked into this work and then realized we could be the kind of firm that serves the whole entity, the whole enterprise around all the identities and the strategy with which to include all of those and do the equity work I was talking about.
And I was also a singer who lost my voice and I had to get surgeries and I would ultimately not be able to use my instrument. And so, I had to walk away from a career that I really wanted badly but losing my voice forced me to recognize that I needed to use my voice in a different way and I needed to use my voice for the voiceless and those voicesless were me. That was my story of being terrified and being closeted in the workplace and really struggling to think about, as a singer, would I get cast? Would I ever even be considered if people knew who I was?
As an HR person in corporate, I was closeted for much of that time. And then, as an entrepreneur, I became a woman-owned certified and LGBT-owned certified and that helped legitimize, I think, this identity and helped me align these pieces of myself that had been, perhaps, banished or hidden or covered and have really brought that … From that alignment, I feel like I can honor both my marginalized identities but also those identities of privilege that I grew up with that allow me to get into rooms, that allow me to challenge people.
And I believe every single one of us in this room, we have access to and we have those ingredients in us. Many of us have access to privileges that somebody else can’t activate and we can do so with less risk, we can use our voice with less risk. So, where I’ve come to is I need allies as an LGBTQ person and I treasure them like you, Monika, and thank you for the film you’re making.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Thank you, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: That means a lot.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: But I can be that aspiring ally. There’s so much I can activate in myself and I think that’s going to be what really takes this movement to the next level is that activation amongst the people who are sitting on the side saying, “Mmm, I don’t know how to do it. I’m scared. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t think this has to do with me. I don’t know what diversity means,” but I always say everyone has a diversity story.
MONIKA SAMTANI: No, that’s true. Well, we’re going to talk about that next.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re going to talk about that.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, Jennifer and I talked offline and to be transparent about what we’re about to say but so not to ever, ever discount your journey, your struggles, your difficulties, the things that you faced and the bravery that you showed to come out and to be in the workplace and find your voice, like you said, and thank you for doing that. So, we talked, one thing that you said is that everyone has a diversity story even those you don’t expect. So, that’s what we’re getting at.
So, my own inherent bias, when I look at someone like you, I automatically am going to think, and this is just me talking, “Okay, she’s a beautiful, White, blond, blue-eyed woman. What does she know about diversity?” because I don’t know your journey. So, if you and I are walking down the street together, if there’s going to be any racism or bias or anything negative in my mind, it’s going to come to me first because what they see first is color.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, my question to you would be is, are you the expert or are you an ally?
JENNIFER BROWN: Good question. Can I be both?
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, of course you can. Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I think this is an interesting moment for all of us having gone through the last couple of years and elevating so many storytellers and questioning my role looking the way I do and identifying the way I do. And I think it’s been a question lurking in many people’s minds around do I have the moral authority to teach or to hold space for this conversation and my LGBT identity is hidden in terms of I can pass. So, it’s interesting to … I have gotten really good at getting on stage and immediately letting the audience know I know what you’re thinking and I’m with you, I hear you, I hear what you must think and I might be triggering, folks.
So, I think it’s important to make the invisible in me visible, number one, and then I also think it’s so important in many … I mainly speak to leadership and leadership audiences share the color of my skin because, technically, that’s true. And I think about my unique opportunity to be a messenger, I think about what I might be able to say more easily that might be heard differently, not because of anything I’ve done or earned, but that I look this way. And if I can be heard, I can be the Trojan horse, I like to think of it as that they wheel the horse up to the gate and the horse gets let in. If I can get let in, then I have some work to do and I’ve access so I feel motivated to do that.
And I think, whenever we dismiss somebody’s contribution to the work, we are missing out on somebody’s unique, someone could be heard by that person, somebody could be shifted by that person. The work is so big ahead of us, we cannot afford to lose anyone but I feel like many people do not understand how they can contribute or are resisting contributing. And that’s what I wake up every day thinking, “If I can be a part of shifting that, I want to be.”
MONIKA SAMTANI: And one thing you said earlier to me was, “Well, look, there are doors that I can open but there are also doors that you can open that I can’t.”
JENNIFER BROWN: You Monika.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Me Monika.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, fair point, right ?
JENNIFER BROWN: Privilege. So, I might need Monika’s allyship until I find my voice and become stronger. I think this is a 360 degree dynamic, it’s mutual. I like thinking of that better than, oh, the ally is giving and other is receiving, it’s different than that. I feel like I’m an ally to the cisgender straight men in my life, honestly, I feel that ally energy. Ally really just means I’m on your side, I’m in solidarity with you, I’m supporting you in your journey and I can take the hits. If you need somebody to take the hits and advocate for you, I can be that person. We also call it accomplice, we call it co-conspirator which I really like. So, words or words, it’s very personal but the idea of being alongside someone and if you need to deploy me, I need to be ready to be deployed. Right?
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you, similarly.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Well, yeah. And the bias that I talked about, what helps with that is having this conversation. So, now, I know your journey, I know why you’re doing this, I know what you’ve been through and I know why you care. And so, therefore, now my thought process about you is different. But then, there’s another part of this conversation, right? So, when a White person says to me, “But you look just like me or you are like me, we’re not different,” then you’re not seeing who I really am so I don’t want that either. That inherent bias, on the flip side, also works against my feelings about what people think about me when I’m walking down the street too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Monika, what you’re talking about is certain generations, mine included or ours, we were taught to say I don’t see color and I don’t see difference and we’re still coping with that in our workplaces. People think they’re doing the right thing by coming from that place and so I think, sometimes, one of the most important points I can make to my generation of leaders is that that’s not the right answer anymore and maybe it never was but we just weren’t ready, I think, with an alternative.
But the alternative is that differences want to be seen, especially for our younger talent to be seen, to be heard, to be valued, to have an organization that wants every piece of who we are and doesn’t just say bring your full self to work but really means it. That’s the direction the future will go in and leaders have to prepare to shift from I don’t see color to I seek and acknowledge that differences have impacted you and I want to remedy that, I want to address it, I want to support it, I want to resource it, I want to troubleshoot with you and I want to bring this playing field.
That meritocracy thing, by the way, how many people have heard, “Oh, meritocracy arguments on DEI.”? Yes, a few hands. I get it a lot. “Oh, Jennifer, you’re telling me I have to hire a certain way but I want the best person for the job and this place can’t function unless it’s a meritocracy.” And I’m like, “Then it never was because your friends hired you, they hired your kids, they hired your friends from school, it wasn’t. It’s a lie.”
MONIKA SAMTANI: Let’s be honest.
JENNIFER BROWN: It never was.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, exactly. It never was, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: It never was so I don’t have any time for that.
MONIKA SAMTANI: One of the chapters in the book, the first chapter is storytelling. So, what was interesting is, in the book, it tells us that journalism, as of 2019, less than 20% of all print and digital newsroom managers are people of color. So, isn’t it obvious and basic that representation matters but then why is it so hard to have equity in storytelling? The identity of the person telling the story, shouldn’t they have a lived experience if they’re really going to authentically tell the story and yet, you’re talking about these facts that we’re looking at as of 2019?
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, I know. Well, the meritocracy argument, I think, is still alive and well. People like to hire people that look like them and came from the same experiences and people are proudly human. If you’re human, you’re biased, so we have affinity bias is alive and well in us, we go with what’s comfortable. And so, I think there’s a hiring challenge, not a sourcing challenge because the talent is there but it’s the bias that happened in the interview and the selection process and then the retention process. So, once we get somebody in the door, can we keep them? What kind of environment? Have we created to ensure equity and belonging for somebody who’s the only on the desk? You were the only.
MONIKA SAMTANI: I was, I was.
JENNIFER BROWN: And so, for you, your experience, you noticed all these ways in which the system wasn’t built by and for you. And then you had all that extra labor trying to figure out how can I be productive in this but we’re asking you to work extra and double hard in a system that-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, it happened, yeah. I think what we’re referring to is I was a local CBS News anchor and reporter in Washington, DC for almost 15 years and I left that in 2014. But when I first started in the media, in DC, in the early ’90s, I was the only Brown person, female that I know of. And I realized much later, one of the reasons I was hired, obviously because I worked hard, but was because I fit the bill-
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re a catch all?
MONIKA SAMTANI: A catch all and I realized it much later because of the comments that I now, in retrospect, realize what was happening. So, luckily, things have changed a bit in that regard but there certainly aren’t enough people of color in journalism yet.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think there’s just a slow realization that the storyteller matters and the lived experience-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: … lens matters.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Well, the quote is, in the book, “When vulnerable groups are scapegoated by the news media, it becomes dangerously easy to blame those groups for society’s problems.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And if you’re not at the table, if that diversity is not present around the table that’s making decisions about stories and coverage and angles and language, and if that diversity is there but they’re not heard, if we’re uncomfortable contributing because of belonging issues and a lack of inclusive environments, we’re not going to speak up. And if we speak up, we may not be heard because of bias. So, there’s several steps in the chain that have to be present, I think, to really get the most and all of those pieces are important.
But in our book, the storytellers were so intentionally and lovingly chosen, so, so critical, also role modeling. To elevate, we call this centering voices and I think one of the ways I activate privileges is if I have a platform, I’m really careful about who I invite and who I choose and how I step out sometimes and put somebody else forward. Because I ask myself, “Am I supposed to step back right now? Do I step to the side or do I step in?” And that choice, just being aware and seeing yourself in a system, when am I really needed but where is there another storyteller? Where is there another lived experience here that’s needed?
And then my job in doing that is I have a pipeline of amazing storytellers that I can then put into and introduce into so that they can be heard. And as an LGBTQ person, as a cisgender person, my pronouns are she, her, hers, I do this a ton with my trans and gender nonbinary friends. It used to be that there was no one to put forward and sometimes I’d find myself-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Right, that’s true.
JENNIFER BROWN: … in the room trying to do my best to talk about that really important identity and doing it justice as an ally. So, that was a really interesting challenge and that’s something I’ve learned a lot. But now, there’s no excuse to center different storytellers.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Right. Leadership is one of the chapters. Isn’t leadership just about being human centric?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
MONIKA SAMTANI: I know you said that we don’t define humanness in the same way though.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, explain that to me. Why is that so hard?
JENNIFER BROWN: So, this is like-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Why is DEI so hard?
JENNIFER BROWN: Why is it so hard?
MONIKA SAMTANI: Why is this so hard?
JENNIFER BROWN: Because people assume that their experience is being had by other people in the same way. We just are so limited by our lens, it’s all we can see unless we really become a student of other lenses and aware of our limitations of our lens because it’s limited no matter who you are. So, I like to say we’re in the same storm but we’re in different boats, we’re riding out the storm differently. So, when I say bring your full self to work, what do you mean? What do you mean, Jennifer, people are still closeted, aren’t we beyond that?
That’s a really great illustration of not having the ability or the interest and I’m not sure which it is, probably a little of both, of imagining that it is relatively harder for me to bring my full self to work and be out and that I struggle with it. So, I do think when we say even just a word like human, can’t we be kind, kind for whom and are we really acknowledging that you know who this system hasn’t been kind to? And if we’re comfortable every day, imagine all the people who aren’t comfortable, for whom the system wasn’t built to work very well.
We lost millions of women from the workforce a year ago I think it was and I wasn’t surprised because the system had never been interrogated and had never been adjusted to account for all of us and so it didn’t work for us. And when push came to shove and the system got pressure, we had to leave, we had to-
MONIKA SAMTANI: We’re talking about the pandemic and the great resignation?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yes. Great resignation. So, companies are in trouble with this stuff and I think it’s very overdue to adjust themselves and take the courageous steps and fix things or rebuild them, scrap them and start from scratch because the workplace was built by a very limited group of architects, very limited. And I think that we’re still laboring in those systems that don’t work for us and the harm that’s caused and fatigue that has caused for all of us to have to work double, to be productive, to be engaged, to be brilliant, as brilliant as we can be, that is such a powerful and profound loss of human potential.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Mm-hmm. So, then, what tools does Beyond Diversity the book provide for our audience to become those allies, to become those advocates in their communities and in their workplaces?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, we try to really boil it down at the end of each chapter. It’s macro level, what needs to change and then micro level, what can I do and then some conversation starters. And Rohit and I and all the other writers, we just wanted to make this simple because it can get so complex so fast and we’re losing our audience from this topic and we can’t afford to lose that audience. So, what’s within my sphere of influence to do-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Why are we losing the audience? Why do you say that?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, in addition to the world changes and the stressors in our world, I think there’s pushback on this topic, there’s fear. I think about saying the wrong thing-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Right. No, for sure.
JENNIFER BROWN: … big time-
MONIKA SAMTANI: For sure, yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: … and a lack of involvement.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, what do we do about that fear?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I think … What do we do about fear?
MONIKA SAMTANI: What’s the approach?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, fear is very real. I think I need to get underneath the fear usually. I like to know is it a fear of not knowing enough, is it a fear of being called out which is part of the fear. And I say to organizations, we have to create a learning environment where stumbles are okay, where we are able to call each other in with grace and space and coach each other because not a single one of us will never stumble, it’s impossible. And yet, we’ve got this environment of a call out culture where there’s no birth given to learning and it concerns me because I’ve made mistakes and, if I had been canceled, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now doing what I do and that kind of environment is too unforgiving for learning to occur.
If you were a kid and you fall off the bike, and somebody berates you for falling off a bike while you’re trying to learn to ride it, how confident are you going to be to sit back on the bike and try it again? We’re just human and so I think the fear is in response to this intolerance and unforgiving environment that we’re in that’s very much why didn’t you know, why aren’t you perfect immediately your first time out? And I always say don’t make perfect the enemy, the good, embrace imperfection. Inclusive leadership is awkward and uncertain and uncomfortable and yes to all of that because, every time we’ve learned anything or developed a habit or a discipline in our lives, it’s been uncomfortable until we’ve developed competency, until we’ve figured out how to ride that bike. So-
MONIKA SAMTANI: And on a personal level, I think it’s as simple as, if you genuinely want to know, maybe there’s just a way to ask. Because once you open that door to that conversation, it’s really, again, to me, that human centric piece that I just want to get to know you better and I want to understand.
JENNIFER BROWN: And you told me you were doing that years ago-
MONIKA SAMTANI: I did that in-
JENNIFER BROWN: … your first gay friend or whatever at work.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, my first gay friend. It was in the early ’90s and, in the newsroom back in DC, we used to, weirdly, have our desks facing each other. Two and two, it was interesting. So, this gentleman who was sitting across from me named Scott, one day I looked at him and I said, “Scott, can I ask you something? Because no one’s ever talked to me about what it means to be gay and I really just don’t understand it,” it was early ’90s. And he said, “You know, I’m so glad you asked me because no one ever asks me about what my life is like,” and that time, sure, the struggles.
JENNIFER BROWN: Totally.
MONIKA SAMTANI: And so, we ended up becoming, till this day, such good friends. He gave me a little bit too much information, I was like, “TMI, thank you, Scott. I didn’t want to know everything but I definitely want to get to know you better because I like you so much. You are so talented, so smart but I know there’s something about you that hurts because nobody asks you and I just want to know.” And then I understood and, since then, there’s no fear. When I meet someone who may be living a different lifestyle than me, I embrace it because I understand it. And that’s really in terms of whether it’s about your race, your religion, how you identify, all it is is understanding and, to me, that’s how simple it is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, let’s go back to the tools at each chapter and how we can use those tools in our daily lives.
JENNIFER BROWN: One thing I’d say is the book is so full of amazing, surprising, non-obvious, to quote Rohit, company stories. Individuals that you would never imagine that do unimaginable things. So, looking for those in your own life, I think the pattern, habit of starting to look for and seek what’s not obvious and starting to combine different storytellers and juxtapose all of our different life experiences, that’s where that creative abrasion really happens. That’s where the power of difference, when it juxtaposes with others, that’s where we get that really good, good stuff like innovation and true belonging and learning and being challenged and evolving as human. So, I just think, anywhere you open up the book, there’s probably a storyteller and a story that’s just will blow your mind.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Oh, yeah. You can open any page-
JENNIFER BROWN: Any page, any page.
MONIKA SAMTANI: … it’s great. So, beyond the six contributors, you hired inclusivity or sensitivity readers for the book.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, give us an idea of what they were looking for and the surprising finds even for you and for Rohit.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I want to hear Rohit says, too. So, we did. We knew that we had two lived experiences and then six additional contributors have their lived experience but it still is not a full complement because it’s impossible. And so, there are these folks called inclusivity readers, sensitivity readers who have different identities and so they’re going to have certain specializations, if you will. But we had a bunch read through the book, different parts of the book and one really interesting piece of feedback was, for some reason, we left a term in.
We were describing a gamer and we named them a disabled gamer. And I got an email, and all the inclusivity readers missed this, interestingly. But I got an email about it and it’s from somebody in the community saying, “People first language.” And people first language, if you ever hear somebody say that, people first language is an important priority for people with disabilities. I just used it, people with disabilities. So, it would have been a gamer with a disability, right? That’s people first, but instead, we said disabled gamer.
Come to find out though, and we will change it actually in subsequent printings, but also there’s disagreement in the community with disabilities about language. So, we also-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Language is so critical, right? I mean, it’s just-
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, that and there’s differences. Queer is a word that people in my generation have this visceral reaction to because it reminds us of the bullying and the name calling of another time. And so, you have this really interesting diversity within the diversity and in a diverse community but that’s the spice of life. I mean, to me, these differences are so … We’ve never been all one community, we are united in purpose but we identify … I mean, gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation and, also, identities aren’t binary.
So, I’m not this or that, I’m probably … And maybe it’s shifting and I’m evolving. Anyway. So, I loved that we have these readers. I know in the film world, there’s also people on set these days who are monitoring for behavior and bias and impact of trauma and intimacy coaches. So, I think we’re starting to really just get into the nitty gritty of this beautiful way of protecting each other, naming who we are as specifically as possible. And I don’t care how many were letters we need to have in an acronym, if that enables somebody to be seen for the first time and be called the right pronoun and the right name.
If you’re going to tell me, “Jennifer, that’s not grammatically correct. I don’t know how to say they, them.” How many people have heard that? Okay, so your inconvenience means that somebody can’t be called what they’d like to be called, it’s incredible to me. So, we have the capacity. We have the capacity and we have to believe that we’re up for the challenge. I think we have big hearts that can be opened up and we have a lot of room for vocabulary and-
MONIKA SAMTANI: But I would say, because we talked about this too, call me in, don’t call me out.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, I love that. So important. Look, Me Too, Me Too had to become a call out, right?
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Because the desperation of the situation-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah, of course.
JENNIFER BROWN: … and not being heard from the call ins. But in the workplace, I’d like us to think more about the way that we call others in and call ourselves in for learning. That gentleness, kindness, that graciousness, that remembering that this is how I was called in and how I was given feedback because I said something that caused harm. And what the impact was on me that enabled me to accept accountability and then adjust and change without a lot of angst and drama and shame and the things that go along with it.
And I think that call out is destructive in a good way and a bad way. It burns it to the ground but it gets the job done, but the learner disappears from the system and I don’t think the system learns what it needs to learn which is why did this happen in the first place. How can I swim upstream and go to the source of why? Because if we don’t fix that, the harm is going to continue to happen. But if we cancel people, the discussions never happen.
So, the call in is that invitation, it’s taking somebody’s side, it’s not shaming in public, ideally, and it’s the invitation to adjust. And then, if things continue to happen and this is a repeated thing, then I think we up the ante and we up the accountability and then only we can decide how hot do we want it to get.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Well, so as a leader, for example, with this call in, call out situation of The Fem Word. So, I lead a group of, as you heard in the introduction, high school and college age girls who really power what I consider a digital newsroom because that’s where I come from, a newsroom, but I converted it to a digital newsroom where we can now tell stories of women around the world. And so, one of our editors that I’ve worked with for several years was Sarah and went through a journey of becoming they, them and changed their name to Quinn.
So, when they told me, and I was thrilled and they were just so fulfilled to find themselves in this way and it was wonderful. But several times on calls after that, I would say she because I was used to that but they never called me out. They always just very gently, as you’re saying, reminded me, they. Because they’re not looking at me like I’m trying to be disrespectful, they understood that this transition for me and my mindset when I look at essentially the same person is going to take time.
And so, I think that’s where the gentleness comes in, that you understand I still respect you, if not before, more than before because you did this. So, for me, that’s also how, maybe, leaders need to approach things and also how people just generally with each other need to approach things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Definitely.
MONIKA SAMTANI: It’s not always that easy, I know that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
MONIKA SAMTANI: In an ideal situation like I have, this was easier.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. And I think, remember generational differences, remember that this is really like learning a new language right now-
MONIKA SAMTANI: No, it is. Absolutely.
JENNIFER BROWN: … for a lot of folks and really good leaders, beloved leaders, kind leaders can still get canceled as a result of this stuff and I deal with those folks in the coaching context sometimes. But those with power and influence need to be part of what we’re trying to shift. And, if we don’t give any room, we’re going to lose some of their access, some of their ability to create change. With one signature, they can change something that could take you and me 10 years to accomplish.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Right, right. Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: And so, back to my point of needing every person, especially people who have the ability to save us some angst and emotional labor and all the struggle because we’re going to be struggling. A lot of us have been struggling for a long time and it feels like there’s no end in sight and the fatigue is real, the burnout is real. I call it compassion fatigue but it’s real. And I see leaders that I’m describing as the reinforcements, our aspiring allies. Everybody have just woken up over the last two years and said, “Oh, my goodness, I was asleep. I didn’t know. Now I know, what can I do? How do I-”
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? I love that because we’re not arguing the why anymore, we’re talking about how and they’re rolling up their sleeves and they’re going to get it wrong and I’m trying to say let this process take the time it needs, it has to because we don’t want to give up those that wonderful participation and the concrete things that certain people can move that others cannot, it’s real.
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, as a child of immigrant parents, you know what I’m happy about? Is that I feel good in my skin today and it’s a little easier for me. It’s not easy for everyone but I was … What was the term you used with me earlier the coat?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, code switching.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Code switching. So, that was me because, on the bus to school, I would change my mindset to what I needed to do to assimilate. And then, on the way home, I would be like, “Okay, now I’m an Indian girl because I’m going to open the doors to my home and it’s going to be the smells and the people and the music and the culture,” but I had to hide that when I was on the bus to school. But today, I can happily say that I embrace my color, my culture, how I feel like I fit into society today in all aspects. So, I feel like there has been some progress but I think you have to allow that and embrace first who you are no matter what aspect of that it is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Maybe our legacy can be shortening the amount of time that it took-
MONIKA SAMTANI: Well, this took my whole life.
JENNIFER BROWN: Decades, yeah.
MONIKA SAMTANI: A little too long but I’m here today and I’m okay with that. So-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s good, that’s good. So, may it be different for the subsequent generations and I think they’re going to insist on it because one of the key attributes of Gen Z and millennials with Gen Z too is inclusion is their top value. And so, meanwhile they’re coming into organizations being like, “What is going on here? Why does the leadership team look that way? Why does nobody talk about this? Why is everybody afraid of this?” There’s all these disconnects and then we have the great resignation with people much more empowered than they’ve ever been and you have a recipe for a really big talent crisis because we haven’t done the work we needed to do to create the system that they would then enter and say, “Ah, I feel good here. I can do my best work here.”
MONIKA SAMTANI: So, we were talking about pay equity as well and somebody I’d love to invite to the stage is the co-author of the book Rohit Bhargava who is here in audience.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, he’s here with us.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Many of you know him from his popular non-obvious featured sessions in past South by Southwest events. The founder of non-obvious, The Non-Obvious Company, Rohit Bhargava.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yay.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Thanks, Mon.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Rohit.
MONIKA SAMTANI: Okay, welcome.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, thanks. I don’t know if I’m supposed to ask you something or you’re supposed to ask me something.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, we wanted you to tell the story about pay equity with the inclusivity readers.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Oh, yeah, yeah. So, in the process of writing this book and if you see the cover of it, the two of our names are on there but there’s also six contributors and the back cover has pictures of all eight of us. And so, there was a whole army of people who were working on this and Chhavi is over there as well and, afterwards, we’re doing a book signing. For the first time, four of us will be signing so we had to coordinate who gets what quadrant to sign. We haven’t quite figured that out yet, I don’t think.
JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t know.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: But in addition to that, we brought in 12 sensitivity readers and they were based all over the world. So, we had one in Malaysia, one in New Zealand, some in the US, one in Canada. And they all came to us and we said, “You’re going to read a chapter for us.” And when they came back with their rates, the rates were all different and that was a moment for us where we thought, “Well, they’re doing” … Thank you. See? Branding.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: There it is right there.
JENNIFER BROWN: There it is.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Nice, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: There it is, there it is.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: That’s good. That was a nice segue. We totally worked on that before. So, what we said is, well, we want to have pay equity so we’re going to pay them all the same. So, the one that was charging us the highest price, we went to all the others and we said, “For the work you’re doing for us on this book, your new rate is not what you said you were going to charge us, it’s actually this. And not only that, but that’s what your time is worth because we didn’t just randomly pick you.
We looked at the work that you’ve done, we selected you as one of our readers and the quality of the work that you showed us and what you’ve done is worth this and that is what we are willing to pay.” And Chhavi and I, we both founded the publishing company behind this, so what we said to the sensitivity readers is this is what a publisher, a professional publisher is willing to pay for your work and that’s what you should be charging to everyone else.
So, not only are we going to pay you more, but you should feel confident that that’s your rate because that’s what you’re worth and that, I think, is what gets pay equity. It’s not just making a one-time adjustment or having like … What we didn’t want was for them to leave that experience saying, “Well, those guys were really great,” or, “Man, they were huge suckers. They paid me way more than I asked for.” We don’t want it to be a one-time thing, we wanted it to be something that they felt like, okay, we can charge everybody that.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that.
MONIKA SAMTANI: I love it.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah, we like that story. It’s what you can do within your sphere of influence. It doesn’t need to be big, this can be something you do that you have control over and you can adjust. It reminds me of the ban on salary histories in job interviews. The bias that can anchor you when you disclose what you’ve been paid, it can anchor you to that. But the thing is that salary history reflects the gaps in pay equity for a lot of us. And so, in a way, it’s really not equitable to expect the candidate to divulge that and then to underpay them. So, we should be paying for what we think the job pays and not leaving it up to the, oh, they didn’t negotiate well. No, [inaudible 00:48:33].
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, that’s what it comes down to and that’s what a lot of people say. And I know one of the other things you say in a lot of your work, and we talk about this in the book too, is that victory is not getting one person hired that represents an entire group. It’s not like what some people say like, “Well, America can’t be racist because we had a Black president.” That makes no sense at all, that’s not the same thing. It’s like, oh, we solved world hunger because we fed one person who’s hungry for one day. No, you got to actually do more than that, right? And you have a interesting way of talking about that. You encourage companies, you say, “Look, one person is not” … The thing, in fact, there’s a critical mass that’s required, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah. They say it’s a rule of three, so three out of every 10. So, when we think about boards, when we think about executive teams, so that somebody doesn’t feel tokenized and that people see their difference first before they see their contribution, it’s really three. As a proportion, it’s a third where you start to be able to feel that there is critical mass, I will be heard and interacted with not based on my identity and not looked at as checking a box but rather.
And speaking of Obama, the famous story is when the female leaders in his cabinet got together and planned, because they were being spoken over, their ideas were getting stolen, they weren’t getting enough credit, so they all banded together and decided to go in and shift the dynamics in that meeting. And they could do it because they triangulated with each other, reinforcing each other’s points, saying each other’s names, shifting their eye contact so that the focus in the room and the discussion was on one of the others, attributing and publicly attributing ideas, et cetera, as to making sure credit went to the right place.
So, they took that on and he should have known better. But speaking of biases, we can’t all see every single thing that’s going on, so I love that story. But if you need that rule of thumb to think about your proportions, and I don’t know if California, where they are on their board requirements, but to literally require one woman on every public board, that was a legislation that was passed last year.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yes, it was similar legislation.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s like the bar is low.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, yeah. Totally.
JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, wow. It’s just-
ROHIT BHARGAVA: No, it is and I think what ends up happening a lot of times is we treat diversity as one dimensional, we need more women on the board. I spent most of my career working in marketing and advertising where many of my teams were 80% women and what we really needed was somebody with a disability or somebody who didn’t grow up on one of the coasts or someone who was over the age of 40. We didn’t have any of those people and that’s what diversity would have meant in that environment, not hiring more women, but hiring people of color, hiring people who had neurodiversity, for example. We talked about all of these different dimensions in the book where it’s not just … A lot of times I think diversity ends up equaling, “Oh, do we look like the United Colors of Benetton ad? Does our team look like that and, if it doesn’t, we don’t have diversity,” and-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: … that’s not enough.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s a tricky thing because invisible aspects of diversity don’t show up in those photos, so it’s a conundrum that I wrestle with. Because we say how important, actually, more of our diversity dimensions are probably unseen, they’re not visible unless we make them visible. And those are so important, they can make or break a workplace culture is a lot of that stuff that is like mental health caregiving, being a single parent, chronic illness, formerly incarcerated, neurodiversity and there’s so much stigma around these things that we have terrified people who are not willing to even disclose their identity, let alone the support that they need. And then we lose them and we don’t know why and we don’t even know that this was going on. And so, we’ve got to also really exercise the muscle of seeing what’s not seen in our workforce, understanding that’s there and then encouraging storytellers to come forward bravely.
And it always takes one or two for the ball to get rolling and you all know affinity groups but, many times, they start with somebody who is brave enough to say, “I’m going to disclose who I am and I’m going to do that so that I can shine a light and others don’t feel as alone and that they will identify themselves and then we will become a community that then, not only creates our own psychological safety, but influences our institution to do better for us, to do better by us, to serve us as customers.” IBM and Dell and a lot of the tech companies have neurodiversity affinity groups and it’s not just a talent strategy, it’s actually also makes the product better to have this diversity on the design teams and to understand the customers. They’re buying these products, using these products, so it’s a virtuous circle. But if you’re even unaware or you’re just basing your strategy on what is visible, you’re missing a lot that is going on that is incredibly important.
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