In Episode 65, Melinda is joined by Jennifer Brown and Rohit Bhargava, the incredible authors of the book Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World. Jennifer and Rohit share their personal experiences and perspectives on creating a more inclusive world. They present key learnings from their book on storytelling, retail, and leadership, as well as their own educational moments they experienced while writing the book and how those moments helped them grow as allies.
- Get a copy of the book, Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World by Rohit Bhargava and Jennifer Brown
- Check out Melinda’s TED Talk: “3 ways to be a better ally in the workplace”
Learn more about Jennifer’s work:
- Check out Jennifer’s personal website
- Watch or listen to Ep 7: “Strengthening LGBTQIA+ Leadership In The Workplace with Jennifer Brown”
- Connect with Jennifer on LinkedIn
- Join Jennifer on Facebook
- Follow Jennifer on Twitter
- Follow Jennifer on Instagram
Learn more about Rohit’s work:
- Check out Rohit’s personal website
- Learn more about Non-Obvious Company
- Connect with Rohit on LinkedIn
- Follow Rohit on Twitter
- Follow Rohit on Instagram
This videocast is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now. Learn more about our show sponsor Interpreter-Now at www.interpreter-now.com
- Rohit: “I love this word, ‘beyond’, because really what it says to me is that we’re thinking about what’s next. And Beyond Diversity was specifically a book about going beyond the conversation, which has already started and has been going for some time around diversity, and to talk about real action. And not just real action for society or civilization but real action for you, for me, for us. What can each of us do to create a more inclusive world, and then how can we collectively impact the organizations that we’re part of whether it’s where we work or the clubs and groups that we are part of to enable that to happen for them as well.”
- Jennifer: “The process of taking the time to pronounce names correctly, we have so many storytellers in this book; perhaps the old me would have stumbled through how to pronounce names. What I did this time is we literally resourced the research of pronunciation. We went through and found the person articulating their own name online, phonetically spelled them out, and then I practiced them, got them into my ears, and did several takes in some cases to make sure that I was pronouncing it in the way that they pronounce their name. And this reminds me of the importance of our names and pronouns to us, how we identify, and what it feels like to have somebody skip over that, somebody to make assumptions about what nicknames they want to call us. The small choices that are so insignificant to some of us that are so significant to others, it’s a real call-to-action and reminder.”
- Rohit: “We have so many powerful examples from an eyeglasses company that started making glasses for people with wider nose frames that really weren’t in the market before because nobody making the glasses had a nose that looked like that. And so, they never thought that somebody might want that until finally, the team got more diverse, and then the products became more diverse. Or you look at all of these motorcycle brands. For decades, they marketed their motorcycles exclusively to men, thinking that only men would want to ride motorcycles. And now, for most of those same manufacturers, the fastest-growing consumer segment they have is women riding motorcycles, and they would never have thought of that decades ago.”
- Jennifer: “I think we have a clear understanding of when you reach the rarefied air, we might have solved some issues with promotion and advancement and we’re endeavoring to have a more representative cohort of talent moving up. But maybe you don’t hit a ceiling, maybe you get put in a role where that role is extremely risky and perilous. And you lack the support, the mentorship, and sponsorship that most people would achieve in a way protected by and supported with. And so, when you are the first and the only one to achieve something, the risk of being there— and they call it a cliff because it’s literally like success or disaster— this is such a no-win proposition because here you are having endeavored to run the gauntlet up the pipeline, and you achieve something only to not be supported and only to sort of have to break through. And if it’s not something disastrous— like a crisis that you’re handed to manage that nobody has succeeded in managing— you get the hardest jobs, you get the most perilous work, but you’re also doing so with less institutional support and sort of implicit and behind-the-scenes support because every first knows how difficult it is.”
Founder of Non-Obvious Company
Rohit Bhargava is on a mission to inspire more non-obvious thinking in the world. He is the #1 WSJ bestselling author of 8 books on marketing, trends, and how to create a more inclusive world including Non-Obvious Megatrends & Beyond Diversity. Rohit has been invited to keynote events in 32 countries around the world. He loves the Olympics, actively hates cauliflower, and is a proud dad of boys.
Founder & CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting
Jennifer Brown (she/her) is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, author, and diversity and inclusion expert who is deeply passionate about building more inclusive workplaces where more of us can feel welcomed, valued, respected, and heard. As the Founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting (JBC), a certified woman- and LGBT-owned firm, Jennifer and her team design and execute inclusion strategies that have been implemented by some of the biggest companies and nonprofits in the world. She is also the bestselling author of two books, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace and The Will to Change (2017) and How To Be An Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive (2019), a shortlist winner of the O.W.L. Award and winner of the 2019 Nautilus Book Awards’ Business & Leadership category. She also recently co-authored a groundbreaking book on diversity, equity, and inclusion in society with thought leader and fellow bestselling author, Rohit Bhargava. The book, Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World will hit bookshelves on November 9, 2021. Jennifer’s podcast, The Will to Change, is downloaded by nearly 15,000 listeners per month, and she is a sought-after keynote speaker and expert for leading research institutions and business schools. She lives in New York City with her partner of over 20 years, Michelle.
MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship, where we have deep, real conversations to build empathy for one another and to take action to be more inclusive and to lead the change in our workplaces and communities. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, founder, and CEO of Change Catalyst and author of How To Be An Ally. I’m a Diversity Equity and Inclusion speaker, advocate, and advisor. You can learn more about my work and sign up to join us for a live recording at ally.cc. All right. Let’s dive in.
MELINDA: Hello, everyone. Today we’re talking with Jennifer Brown, founder, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, and Rohit Bhargava, founder, and chief trends curator at Non-Obvious Company. They’re also co-authors of a new book, Beyond Diversity. So, hello to you both. How are you?
ROHIT: Wonderful. Thank you.
JENNIFER: Really good. Thanks, Melinda.
MELINDA: Okay. So, Jennifer, we have heard from you. There’s a whole episode where Jennifer and I talked deeply, Episode #7. So, go check it out. Learn all about her story there. We’ll also add a link in the show notes. So, Rohit, can you tell us a bit about your story since we haven’t heard yours?
ROHIT: Sure. So, my story is that I was born in India, and I grew up in the US, but I traveled all the time. My dad worked at the World Bank, and so I grew up sort of an international kid. I’ve lived in Australia and the Philippines. And now I’m back living in the Washington DC area. I spent most of my career working in the marketing and advertising industry. And lately, for the last five years plus, I’ve been teaching organizations and leaders how to be more innovative and use what I call Non-Obvious Thinking. So, I come from the world of now, innovation, and trends.
MELINDA: Awesome. Can you say a bit about what Non-Obvious Thinking means? What does that look like?
ROHIT: Yeah. So, for me, Non-Obvious Thinking is essentially seeing what everyone else misses and teaching yourself how to be the sort of person that sees those patterns and sees those details. Jennifer and I were talking about this several weeks ago—there’s a huge overlap between the people who are able to do that and the people who are able to appreciate the value of diversity and inclusive teams to have that sort of perspective. So, there’s kind of a big overlap between those two things, which I know we’ll talk about today.
MELINDA: So, from a Non-Obvious perspective looking at diversity, I think that’s kind of how you ended up with the term Beyond Diversity, which is the name of your book and also the name of the conference as well. What does Beyond Diversity mean? What was that thought?
ROHIT: Well, I love this word “beyond” because really, what it says to me is that we’re thinking about what’s next. And Beyond Diversity was specifically a book about going beyond the conversation, which has already started and been going for some time around diversity and to talk about real action. And not just real action for society or civilization, but real action for you, for me, for us. What can each of us do to create a more inclusive world? And then, how can we collectively impact the organizations that were part of, whether it’s where we work or the clubs and groups that we’re part of, to enable that to happen for them as well. So, that’s what going Beyond Diversity meant for us.
JENNIFER: There are so many diversity elements and dimensions that are not visible to the eye or that we may think we perceive correctly but are missing the truth. I also love the question of beyond and what is non-obvious as a broader palette of diversity dimensions that we need to be inclusive of when we endeavor to bring our full selves to this world and to be seen and heard and valued.
When we endeavor to speak about what diversity actually means because a lot of people still assume it means race and gender. And then we sort of tack on sexual orientation and gender identity and tack on disabilities and like it’s evolved a bit, but I think it needs to evolve a whole lot more and more quickly to speak to all the diversity dimensions that shape our experience in the way the world hears and sees us or not.
And so, making the invisible visible is part of how we change the dialogue. And in the book, we tried to make the invisible storyteller with the invisible and visible diversity dimensions visible, like it’s centering that, and those non-obvious stories that bring those things to light, I think are what powers the book.
MELINDA: Yeah. And also, I got the book right here. So, everyone can see what it looks like.
JENNIFER: That’s our cover.
MELINDA: Yeah. Actually, do you want to talk about the cover really briefly? For those who are on YouTube, you can have this benefit.
JENNIFER: Talk about the artist.
ROHIT: Yes. So, we found an amazing artist. Her name is Zarya Shin. She’s a mosaic artist. And what she does to create these beautiful pieces of art that are usually people’s faces, actually, she has some really iconic versions of individual’s faces. And when we contacted her, we wanted something a little different because this book wasn’t going to have Jennifer or my face on the cover. It’s not about us. It’s about everyone.
And so, we really gave her the challenge of doing something a little bit outside of her wheelhouse, still using the style that she typically uses. And she came up with something just absolutely wonderful. And so, what you’ll see on the cover is there are actually five rows of three circles. And so, it’s sort of a grid pattern. And Beyond Diversity has exactly the correct number of letters to actually fit into those three letters across five letters down. The first two letters B-E and the almost final two letters of diversity I-T stand out as “be it,” which was sort of a reminder for us and for anybody who picks up the book that this book is really about you taking action, you being the change that you want to see in the world as the iconic cliche goes.
MELINDA: And so, the book is actually not—I would say it’s a non-obvious way to arrange a diversity book as well. I mean, the chapters are in storytelling and identity, and family, and culture, and education, in retail, in the workplace, in technology, in entrepreneurship, leadership, government, and the future. Can you just say briefly, kind of where those chapters came from? How have you composed this book?
JENNIFER: Sure. Well, we did this massive Summit, which was called Beyond Diversity, and had over 200 voices pulled together. There’s so much content to curate that it struck us that, “How in the world are we going to fit this into the pages of a book and choose?” But what came to light again, a non-obvious way of sorting, that normally we talked about D and I in terms of identity buckets, if you will. And so, we could have sorted it that way.
But instead, the powerful new way we tried to bucket information and stories and storytellers was by a domain of life like society, like what are all the areas that touch each of us in all these realms of our life? Education, where we shop (retail), the future, government, leadership, the workplace, and that was my specialty area, obviously. But it was so cool as a co-author with Rohit to really have my own mind expanded and then think about “How can we write a book that you could jump into at any point and read something that really hits you, where you live in your everyday life, where this is a sort of an exciting adventure to investigate what do you mean diversity in retail?”
I just think a lot of people would look at that quizzically and say, “Well, I don’t know what those have to do with each other?” And the juxtaposition way that we’re challenging the reader in every moment of our lives and all these services we access in the communities that we’re a part of. I’m hoping. I’m hoping that it takes it out of the realm. Melinda, we talked about this. Out of the realm of agree/disagree, that binary we get into that struggle, that polarization where some of us are for this, and some of us are against this. It takes it out of that, and it says, “Here’s how it weaves like a thread through the fabric of each of our lives.”
My hope is it is presented in such a digestible, concise, and entertaining way and new way that it becomes hard to disagree with. Because how do you disagree with something that’s like the water and air around us? I think of it these days as such a great starter book, like such a good foundation. Before perhaps people get to your book and my book, which was a bit like a little more of an advanced application, but it lays the groundwork to say, “Hey, this is happening everywhere.”
It’s not happening to you. It’s happening for us. And these are all the ways that you live. Like Rohit said, “Be it.” We end each chapter with very concrete actions that anyone with any identity in any scenario and environment and ecosystem can do. So, I was really excited about sorting it that way. Rohit, I’ll let you make this point about how it kind of juxtaposes different storytellers in a really unique way, given the structure we chose.
ROHIT: Yeah, it does use a lot of voices. And you mentioned the Summit, which was a huge catalyst for this. Not only in the inspiration of it but also in the voices that we want to include. And both Jennifer and I really take to heart our roles as storytellers, much more than kind of researchers or academics. And so, when you pick up this book, what you’ll read are lots of stories with themes behind them that give us lessons for how to live and the world that we could create if we were to invest our time and energy to do that.
I think that that just makes for a much more interesting read because one of the big audiences we were writing for was the people who aren’t doing this every day, the people who are not DEI professionals, the people who are in college taking the one diversity course that they will take in their four years at college, and wanting to give them a background in why this exists as a topic and why it matters.
And more than why it matters for moral reasons, why it matters because it can make you better. It can make the company that you work for better. I mean, there’s a real business impact behind this too. So, we didn’t want to just go for, “This is how you should believe because the world should be more equitable.” I mean, we believe that, and I think that’s true. I think a lot of people believe that, but we wanted to go beyond the morality of the argument to actually talk about the real impact of it too.
MELINDA: Awesome. Let’s get to some specifics about a couple of different chapters here and what you learned. Storytelling—many of you listeners know storytelling is near and dear to my heart as a former documentary filmmaker, and I believe that storytelling really does change the world. We change hearts and minds through stories. And so, it’s a through-line throughout the book, but also one of the first chapters of the book as well. So, what did you learn? What are some of the key learnings around storytelling that you brought out in the book?
JENNIFER: Yeah, I’ll start. I mean, I think that we want storytellers to find other storytellers by giving visibility to the most fascinating non-obvious courageous lives that are being lived. And to be able to platform that, and to start with that. I think, Rohit, it was like you just said. We’re not academics. We’re storytellers. We believe storytelling is powerful to change the world just like you, Melinda.
I think that we are proud of starting there. Our own stories play a role too. I start with my story of having lost my voice as an opera singer and fighting to get it back but then learning that I needed to use it in a different way. And then, learning that I needed to in my DEI work to give voice to the voiceless, and having that full-circle moment of, “What was I actually put here to do? How did it start? What was the genesis of it?” But then, the twists and turns as they go. How do they get the courage then to step forward and share all of that?
So, we were blessed at the Summit with so many courageous innovators. And so, we wanted to unpack in that chapter sort of what makes stories so powerful. What are some examples of powerful non-obvious storytellers? How can also we celebrate that people can be this and that? It’s also, I think, demonstrating intersectionality and making that very real. It’s another concept, Melinda, that you and I probably spent a lot of time explaining why.
I think we will continue to do so. But it’s powerful. No one has a single story either. And I’ve been fascinated with my non-obvious story of being LGBTQ+ and making that obvious. And actually utilizing it as a source of power, as a change agent. I think that’s been so profound for me. It’s how I start every talk I give is my personal story. It’s the way that I get into hearts and minds and kind of open that door and put my foot in the door, and I don’t let it close and make sure that I’m heard. That was just such an honor to be able to start that way with the book. But Rohit, I’d love to hear what it meant for you, and maybe your favorite part from the chapter too.
ROHIT: To me, stories, as somebody who spent most of his career in marketing, stories are a form of persuasion. That can be a good thing because they can teach us about new ways of seeing the world. It can also be a negative thing because we see people in certain ways based on how they’re depicted in the stories that we consume, whether it’s through books, or films, or TV. Storytelling has both of those things.
And so, we didn’t want to shy away from that, but we wanted to talk about, well, what does that mean to not just consume different stories as consumers of media and entertainment, but to give the mic or the camera to storytellers who previously haven’t had a chance to have it. And what stories would they tell if they could speak for themselves instead of having someone else depict them in a certain way? I think storytelling has all of that, which is why not only do we want to explore it as a chapter, but why it’s the first chapter, right?
MELINDA: Yeah. I was looking more at our allyship study recently and looked at our data and realized that 70% of the people who responded said that people first learned about the need for allyship through a story, whether that’s a story from learning about their colleagues’ experience, somebody in their family’s experience, or friends, even strangers, that it was their first aha moment was hearing about somebody else’s story with an experience with microaggressions with discrimination. Yeah. The power of us telling our stories, like you said, Jennifer, and also consuming stories and those stories that we tell is so important.
So, Jennifer, you also mentioned the retail chapter. While the show is about workplace empathy and allyship, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think it’s important that when we walk out the doors of our offices, whether that’s a virtual door or physical door, or our personal space or workplace, when we walk out that door that we’re still holding true to our values around diversity, around empathy, inclusion, allyship as well. We’re also going into the holidays for many people. So, let’s talk about retail a little bit. What did you find there? What are some themes that people might take into their next retail experience?
JENNIFER: Yeah, I’ll start. We do talk a bit about supplier diversity. And then Rohit, I’ll kick over to you. But as a diverse supplier, we’re designated as a woman-owned and LGBT-owned business. The choices, however small, that we all make because every day we procure a service, right? We buy something. We make those choices. And the research is more and more available about how to patronize strategically. And really those choices and the difference that they make.
And so, for me, as someone who sells to larger organizations as a vendor, their choice to support us means that they are furthering the economy of founders that look like me, and you, and Rohit. They’re also encouraging the innovation that we bring because we solve problems differently because of our lens of identity, both obvious and non-obvious, and our lived experience. And so, I get to include a little bit about that, which is a passion of mine because I believe that it’s such a great equalizer. It’s so powerful where we spend our dollars. We have so much choice in that.
And if our strategy, just like in the workplace, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. If our strategy is to true-up economic opportunity in the workplace, the opportunities to true-up the talent, the composition of our talent, so that reflects the world that we do business in. Like, that’s what needs to happen, and we’re woefully behind on that. But what if our spending were to mirror our priorities and the way that we want the world to be more balanced?
And so, I love being able to write about that and bring that concept because it feels like such a niche concept. But really, every dollar we make a choice about, we have the opportunity to make a different choice and to share our choices so that we can educate others about the fact that this is a true economic change that we’re creating when we make those choices. So, that was one thing I was excited about. Rohit, what would you like to share?
ROHIT: Yeah. I think that this chapter, in particular, the retail chapter is a great example of how we could take one element and explore multiple dimensions of it because the consumption side of it, which Jennifer was talking about, is huge in terms of how we decide to spend our money in the statement we make by spending our money with some vendors or in some places versus others.
The flip side of that is the actual making of the stuff itself. What role innovation plays, and what role does having a more diverse team play in the products that you even create in the first place and who they’re created for, and who they’re marketed to? And so, we have so many powerful examples from an eyeglasses company that started making glasses for people with wider nose frames that really weren’t in the market before because nobody making the glasses had a nose that looked like that. And so, they never thought that somebody might want that until finally, the team got more diverse, and then the products became more diverse.
Or you look at all of these motorcycle brands. For decades, marketed their motorcycles exclusively to men, thinking that only men would want to ride motorcycles. And now, for most of those same manufacturers, the fastest-growing consumer segment they have is women riding motorcycles and they would never have thought of that decades ago.
MELINDA: Near and dear to my heart, by the way. I don’t know if you know that, but that’s near and dear to my heart.
ROHIT: Okay. So, you’re part of that segment then. I didn’t know that.
JENNIFER: Perfect example.
ROHIT: Yeah. There’s proof right there. Because exactly that, we’re so traditional sometimes in the way that we see who the audience is for something, or who would be interested in something that we basically put on blinders for ourselves. We censor our own perspective, and we never look at anything broader than that until we are challenged to do it.
We could challenge ourselves to do it. And really great, innovative people constantly do that for themselves. But another way to do it, a highly effective way to do it, is to bring more diverse team members into the team who spot those deficiencies and spot those opportunities right away because it’s just who they are. The more diverse and inclusive we can make our teams, the more we can actually bring that type of perspective in, which is exactly what any company should want to do because that generates real dollars of benefit.
It’s not just something that they could do for show or for PR reasons, which is not a good reason to do this. I mean, you should care deeply about why it matters, but there’s a real impact there too. And that was something we found over and over again and a real message we tried to put forward not only in the retail chapter but across the entire book.
JENNIFER: If I could add, Melinda. I wanted to make a plug for retailers that are moving beyond the gender binary in terms of how they structure their stores. Talk about good for the bottom line to Rohit’s point of accessing young people and all of their interests and enabling through the flow-through different toy sections, for example, in a way that’s not structured in the binary. It seems so obvious.
I think we’re going to look a lot in the back rearview mirror at these traditional structures and wonder how much we missed and how byzantine they were. They were never useful. They were never true. We know this now. We know that gender identity is a continuum. We know that one out of under 35-year-olds identifies as not straight and not cisgender, so one out of five of everyone under the age of 35, and yet we have boy sections and girls sections.
Retailers are, in many ways, I think, challenging themselves to Rohit’s point about how we can speak to this change. It’s not that the customer is changing. It’s our changing understanding of humans and how they identify. I just think that’s important. To me, it’s breathtaking when you see a retailer really embrace this loudly and proudly. I know courageously because I’m sure that there is pushback and challenge that comes along with it, but overall they’re going to win the long term. I don’t like the war and the battle wording, but they will prevail because they are ahead of where this whole conversation is going, which is that sort of total choice about how I identify, whether or not that’s visible to the external world, the retailer that speaks that language and truly understands that and is willing to structure their stores accordingly will win.
MELINDA: Yeah. When we did our— I think it was our second Tech Inclusion Conference years ago. We have two different fits for shirts. We had this debate. We call them men’s and women’s. No, we can’t do that. And so we ended up saying, “Well, one is curvy, and one is a straight fit.” How simple is that? I mean, it’s just things like that. We just need to rethink just a little bit, just a little tweak. Women’s motorcycle clothing is a whole nother thing. Pink and purple and turquoise, which is fantastic, if that’s what you like.
JENNIFER: I smell a business opportunity, Melinda.
MELINDA: Oh, there’s so much opportunity. There are some great women’s brands that are starting to emerge. The issue is that they need funding. And of course, you have that entrepreneurship, section two, because it’s all interrelated, right? That these women’s motorcycle brands tend to have received less funding, and so it’s harder for them to grow. And so, yeah. That’s all interconnected.
JENNIFER: Were you going to say something, Jennifer? Did I cut you off?
JENNIFER: No. All good.
MELINDA: There was another piece that really caught my eye in the leadership section. A lot of people know my story because it’s in my TED talk. And I also talk about it quite a bit in my talks is that I hit the glass ceiling. When I was an executive, I hit the glass ceiling. I was in a very non-inclusive workplace, a toxic environment. It’s kind of my awareness moment to leave my job and leave that corporate space to really create change through Change Catalyst and create a more diverse, equitable, inclusive tech culture in particular.
One of the takeaways in that leadership section is that the glass ceiling can’t be replaced with a glass cliff. I know what that means, but I think a lot of people don’t know what that means. Maybe we could talk about that a bit.
JENNIFER: Sure, Melinda. I love how language evolves and gets more specific. We could say it’s the pink ceiling or the pink cliff too. I think of LGBTQ+ people, and pink is a big color for the community. I think we have a clear understanding of when you reach the rarefied air, if you will, up there, right, as you move, we might have solved some issues with promotion and advancement, and we’re endeavoring to have a more representative cohort of talent moving up. But you know, maybe you don’t hit a ceiling, but maybe you get put in a role where that role is extremely risky and perilous, and you lack the support and the mentorship and sponsorship that most people that would achieve that place would be in a way protected by and supported with.
And so, when you are the first and the only one to achieve something, the risk of being there, and they call it a cliff because it’s literally like success or disaster. This is such a no-win proposition because here you are having endeavored to run the gauntlet up the pipeline, and you achieve something only to not be supported, and only to sort of have to break through, you know, bushwhack your way through every single day. And if it’s not something disastrous, like a crisis that you’re you’re handed to manage that nobody has succeeded in managing, you get the hardest jobs, you get the most perilous work, but you’re also we’re doing so with less, like, institutional support and sort of implicit and sort of behind the scenes support too because every first knows how difficult it is. You really, really feel very exposed.
So, I think that our understanding has gotten more mature about what actually happens to derail that first that gets through. And then the challenge as you know Melinda, and Rohit, you might or might not know this, but the penalty then of not succeeding and becoming this image of, “Oh, well, we tried that.” or “We promoted or we did what we were told to do, but this person didn’t succeed.” There’s so much more to the story than that.
The reason we’re the first to get to the table that we get to is the institution has never supported anyone to get to where we’ve gotten. And so, the fatigue is real, the risk is real. And it’s terrible and tragic that all of a sudden, people would say, “Write this off.” And sort of say, “Well, that strategy didn’t work.” without acknowledging the fact that the workplace wasn’t built by and for so many of us. And we weren’t at the table to build that workplace. And so, when we don’t succeed, like, for whatever reason, it’s not a fair assessment of our performance, our potential, our abilities, and worse, to get scapegoated. So anyway, we do go into that in the leadership chapter, which was one of my favorite chapters, obviously,
MELINDA: Yeah, for obvious reasons. One thing I would say is that it’s not just that it’s the first. It’s also that it’s the only. There are many organizations, including the one that I was in, where I was not the first, but I was the only. And it was a series of the own ways over time. And each of us somehow didn’t work out. And so, I do think that that’s an important piece of that, too. Were you going to add something?
ROHIT: No, I like Jennifer’s answer. So, maybe we can move on to the next one.
JENNIFER: You and I could go deep into this one.
MELINDA: Yes, absolutely. Is there a particular area that you or Rohit— that really hit home for you in the book where you were like, “Wow! This is something that I hadn’t thought of.” or “This is something that was surprising to me.”? The very non-obvious thing that just stood out for you.
ROHIT: Yeah. I mean, the short answer is almost every chapter. It’s something like that. We talked about culture, identity, and family. And that was kind of this set of understanding yourself and understanding the ecosystem of where you live. A lot of my work, like Jennifer, has been in companies, in corporations, where you talk all the time about leadership or entrepreneurship or innovation. You don’t really talk as much about cultural identity and family. Those seem like outside of business types of topics.
As you get into DEI-focused conversations, obviously, you do talk about that a little bit more than if you’re just doing innovation work or marketing or storytelling. But for me, the process of researching and writing those chapters was deeply introspective because you can’t write about culture, identity, or family without thinking about your own cultural identity and family and how that differs from others.
One of the things we haven’t really talked about is that this book is not just Jennifer or my perspective. We also had six contributors to the book, who were listed on the cover and who were on the back cover, who offered their perspectives as well. And then we had 200 speakers from our Summit, who were all basically interviews and friends and early people who contributed their perspectives and quotes and things for the book. And then, we brought in another eight sensitive readers to read the book and offer critiques on the writing when we were at a very late stage of writing, and then changed things based on their feedback also.
So, this book really was a village in the sense of lots and lots of different perspectives. We did that very intentionally because we wanted to create a space where we could hear from perspectives other than our own. And so, I learned a lot personally from that process of going through that because I mean, for me, at least, this is my eighth book. So, I’m not new to writing books. But this process was the first time that I’d done it this way with this many people involved.
And generally, what you hear when it comes to anything is you don’t want too many, whatever the cliche is. You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, or you don’t want too many people stirring the pie. I don’t know what the thing is, but, you know, it’s heard often that when you bring in too many perspectives, that’s a bad thing.
And in this case, with this book, the non-obvious learning we had is that actually, it doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it in a strategic and thoughtful way. I feel like we did that because it didn’t derail us. It didn’t blow out our timeline by months and months and months. It didn’t force us to throw away the 12 chapters that we wrote and start all over again. We didn’t have those types of issues.
What it helped us do is refine and get better and better so that ultimately the words that we put down on paper and the way that we talked about the book, whether you pick up the physical book, or you listen to the audiobook, or the ebook, or we soon we’ll have a large print edition of the book also. No matter what version of the book you get, everything has been very thoughtfully put in a certain way. We reduced. Anybody who’s edited anything knows it gets better if you cut it down. It’s better when it’s shorter. And so, we did that process. We consider the language that we use.
MELINDA: And it’s painful.
ROHIT: It’s painful. It’s always painful. But afterward, you are much prouder of the results in general. I think that’s where we ended up. We’re really proud of the result because it has just the right number of words, not too many, not too few. It is very intentional in terms of the capitalization of the words that we used or the terms that we put in. I mean, everything is so considered in this book.
We wanted to do that because it’s a book about diversity. It’s a book about inclusive thinking, obviously. But also, because this is not a book that is going to be dated after six months or a year. This is a book that we wanted people to be able to pick up 10 or 20 years from now and still learn something from. And when you have as many stories in the book as we did in this book, doing that and featuring people of today, while still trying to write a book that is timely 20 years from now, is not an easy thing to think about as a writer. But I feel like we were able to do that. And that’s really meaningful for me because the process of doing that, the journey to get there, was something I learned a huge amount from, and hopefully, anybody who reads the book will also grow as a result of reading it in that way.
MELINDA: And it seems like that process is something that we can take to writing any book and also to developing any product, any service as well.
ROHIT: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I mean, it’s hard. It’s asking more questions and learning from other perspectives besides your own. I mean, that’s the snapshot of what we tried to do in this book. And that is something that I don’t think you need a Ph.D. in diversity if such a thing exists in order to do.
JENNIFER: If I could say, Melinda. I know you know a lot about inclusivity readers, also known as sensitivity readers, but it was incredible to be able to run our writing through that filter and have really rich discussions about terminology and the fact that language is changing so quickly. We had to make some hard calls, but then at least we dedicated some space to write about those hard calls very transparently. For example, capitalizing Black but not capitalizing White. I learned so much we should write a paper on the state of those choices and what they mean.
MELINDA: Me too. Yeah.
JENNIFER: You know.
MELINDA: Same power station.
JENNIFER: Okay. Yeah. Okay. We could have gone either way. We almost could have argued to do it their way. But in the end, I made a call. We made a call to actually capitalize White. So, yeah. We researched it and explained why the choice was made. So anyway, it’s good to know that we’re on the same page.
MELINDA: We actually did, too. Yeah. Choose the same path. Yeah. Yeah, it is a hard one. I think that the key in it is the same as to talk about it and to be open and honest about it, and know that language is going to change.
One thing you both in the introduction talked about some humbling moments for you, where you either made mistakes or you found growth opportunities as allies. Would you mind sharing those? I don’t have a lot of time left, but I would love to hear. We would love to hear that.
ROHIT: Yeah. Maybe I’ll start. I mean, I had a number of them just as a male working in the worlds that I’ve worked. I have a little bit, I think, of a different perspective because I’ve always for my entire career worked in an industry that was probably more than 50% female. But a lot of the leadership in marketing and advertising remains male. So, leadership is male-dominated, but the industry is actually more female-dominated.
That gave me this sort of perspective that I think was a little bit different in how I saw the world. And for me, an awakening really came from realizing the situation as a professional speaker, that I had agreed to do an event that had not elevated any female speakers to the role of keynotes. And so, they had an entirely male roster of keynotes. It wasn’t a manel because we weren’t all on the panel together. We were also speakers, but the effect was kind of the same thing, which is, they had lots of men on stages, keynotes. And though they had female speakers, they weren’t keynoted speakers. And it was an event about marketing, which, as I said, is more than 50% female.
And so, not that the topic should matter. But that should certainly lean more towards having females. When I said yes to the event, I didn’t know or particularly care who the other speakers were. Only after realizing that did I think to myself, “I probably should have asked.” And that to me was an awakening because it’s easy as a solo speaker to deflect responsibility for something like that. I mean, it’s not my event. I didn’t organize it. I didn’t choose the speakers. I’m just a guy who was invited and said yes. Right?
And so, it’d be relatively easy for me to kind of dismiss any responsibility for that. And probably, I have done that many times in the past without realizing it. In the process of sort of becoming part of this conversation and writing this book, I realized that that’s essentially being a bystander, and I need to be better than that. And so, it forced me to actually have a reckoning with myself to say, “Look, when I say yes to an event, I need to pay more attention to who’s on stage.” And if it’s not diverse, and this is not just about women on stage, this is about diversity in every aspect, right? If it’s not diverse in terms of who they’re inviting to the stage, I need to either create an impact to bring more of those speakers from my own network to that event or decline to participate.
The discipline of doing that has actually been really educational for me because it made something that I felt was not my issue to solve. It became my issue to solve. That was really an important moment for me in the process of doing this whole thing.
MELINDA: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that, Jennifer.
JENNIFER: Yeah, we all have stories like that. I have traveled the same path as Rohit has on that front. Mine is a small example, but it is so powerful. Rohit and I shared the audiobook recording duties. And so, we split up the chapters, and we alternated. The process of taking the time to pronounce names correctly—we have so many storytellers in this book. I think, perhaps the old me would have stumbled through how to pronounce names.
What I did this time is we literally resource the researching of pronunciation. We went through and found the person articulating their own name online and phonetically spelled them out. And then, I practiced them and got them into my ears and did several takes or many takes in some cases to make sure that I was pronouncing it in the way that they pronounce their name.
This reminds me, as you know, Melinda, of the importance of our names to us, of our pronouns to us, right, how we identify, and what it feels like to have somebody skip over that. Somebody to make assumptions about what nicknames they want to call us, or just the small choices that are so insignificant to some of us that are so significant to others, I think is a real call to action and reminder. And so, I just wanted to show what our internal process was like with that and how much I enjoyed that process of listening to the storyteller articulate their name in their way and then trying to do it justice to the extent that I could. It’s a responsibility that we all have.
And so, if we need to slow down to go fast, we need to take that moment to understand how people want to be called to inquire and then to commit it to memory. Ideally, never needing to ask again, and then correcting others if we hear it mispronounced their pronoun, their name, etc. This is such an important way to honor people. So, it felt really important to me, and I will never approach this kind of endeavor again or moderate a panel the same again because of the way that we now have committed to researching this. So, I loved that. And I loved the audiobook. In fact, the audiobook is coming out soon. Rohit, do you want to tell them when that’s coming out?
ROHIT: No, it’s out. Yeah, it’s out. It’s out.
JENNIFER: Wow, so exciting. So yeah, we’re very thrilled about that.
MELINDA: Yeah. I will say that it takes another step in remote conferences often. I’ve emceed our own conferences many times. And so, backstage, we’ll ask somebody to say their name and repeat it for me so that I make sure that I say on stage. And then, we had our virtual conferences, and I suddenly found myself, “Wait a minute. I can’t. There’s no backstage.”
One of the things that I find fascinating is that most people don’t know how to phonetically say or write their names either. We tried that, but that didn’t really work very well. I think that that’s something that maybe we could consider in the virtual space is more of teaching each other how to phonetically say and write it down and read it so that we can learn. Yeah, I found that really challenging in the virtual space to make sure that I do that.
Okay. So, as a part of Going Beyond Diversity, and this is a part of the show, too, is that we want to make sure that people take action as a result. And so, I would ask you both to name one action that you would really like people to take as they come away from listening to this today?
ROHIT: Well, I mean, you mean besides buying the book and reading it?
MELINDA: Besides buying the book. We will definitely have a link for that. Yeah.
ROHIT: You can’t take the marketing guy out of the marketing stuff. Yeah, I would say that one of the biggest things that have had an impact in my entire career has been to consume media that is not intentionally created for me. And whether that’s a TV show, or a movie, or a book, or a magazine, I advocate this all the time to groups that I go and speak to, to workshops that I do. You have to find new sources of information that are not created with you in mind. And especially today, when we have social media and algorithms understand what we like and who we are to a much deeper level than ever before. Social media is really good at serving you up stories that you either agree with or stories that are guaranteed to make you angry and frustrated. And not serving you stories that will open your mind or perspective to other things in a positive way.
And so, if we’re going to do that, we have to get away from the algorithm. You can’t just go on to Facebook or Twitter or any of these platforms, or even Google because guess how Google’s algorithm works for any search results. It reads what you have in your Gmail, which by the way, is also owned by Google and serves you search results that are based on your Gmail. So, the search results I get are different from the search results you get.
MELINDA: Yeah. Netflix and Amazon also have those algorithms, by the way. Also, you have to go behind and go deeper to find some of those movies that aren’t intentionally made for you. Yeah.
ROHIT: Yeah. Or use blind browsers or use things that intentionally get you outside of it, or the secret weapon in a digital world is to, I believe, is to read stuff in print. If you pick up a magazine, a physical magazine, it’s the same one, no matter who you are, that magazine. No, it varies a little bit regionally. So you know, you might get slightly different ads depending on where you buy it, but pretty much it’s the same magazine. That doesn’t exist online. I mean, even headlines of stories get changed algorithmically based on who you are and what your platform is that you’re coming to the article with.
So, you have to intentionally break yourself out of that by consuming media that the algorithm can’t massage. It doesn’t require special access, special, you know, FBI level clearance to do it. You just have to walk into a Hudson Bookstore in an airport and pick up a magazine that you’d never otherwise pick up. So, it’s within our control, but we have to choose to do it. So, that, to me, was the biggest takeaway from this and from all of my other work. I hope that if people read this book and want to broaden their own perspectives that this is one of the ways that they could do that.
JENNIFER: Great point. Thanks, Rohit. I love that. I would add—how about we challenge ourselves to think about what is non-obvious about ourselves about our stories and our journey as storytellers? If I’d never been challenged to give a TED Talk, and Melinda, you’d been there. Rohit, have you given a TED talk? I’m sure many, many talks. But we all are speakers here. And we all remember that moment when we were afraid to make the non-obvious obvious in front of thousands of people. But that is a crucible moment in our lives when we decide that my story is more powerful being heard, and I am being witnessed by others makes me stronger.
And so, I might challenge us heading into the holidays, especially which is tricky times when we’re faced with perhaps some loved ones and others in our ecosystem where that disagreement may be there. Understanding that what is non-obvious about us is actually so common and shared and appreciated in the world. But we tend to play small. We don’t think it’s consequential. We don’t believe in the transformation that is available to us through telling our non-obvious stories. And so, I always encourage. I went through that process too. I thought I didn’t matter. I thought nobody wanted to hear it. I didn’t think it had the power to transform. But we do it anyway. We can’t forecast the kinds of change that we may create and the ripple effect that we may never be here to see, and we may never know occurs, but the leap of faith that we need to make over and over again is to be more truthful. And also, to shine a light with our non-obvious identity, shine a light for others who desperately need to see that lighthouse.
So, I would challenge us to all think about how we are moving along that road because your story matters, and what’s not visible has tremendous power to be world-changing, in addition to what is seen and visible about us. There’s so much under our waterline as if we are icebergs that if we were to elevate it, we could create a community where there is none and enable people to feel less alone and less isolated. So, I just love to kind of come back to that as my magnetic north for the work that I do and we all do together. We’re sort of in many ways, the three of us on the other side of that because we’re so accustomed to doing it, but I just want to give a shout out to those who are early in the journey.
MELINDA: Awesome. I love it. I love it. Rohit, what is that link where people can find the book?
ROHIT: It is NonObviousDiversity.com. And not only can you find the book there, but the Summit that we mentioned, you can watch almost 50 hours of content totally for free straight from that link as well.
MELINDA: Awesome. Awesome. Thank you both for this lovely conversation. I appreciate you.
JENNIFER: Thank you.
ROHIT: Thank you.
JENNIFER: Thanks, Melinda.
MELINDA: All right, everyone. We will see you next week.
MELINDA: To learn more about this episode’s topic, visit ally.cc.
Allyship is a journey. It’s a journey of self-exploration, learning, unlearning, healing, and taking consistent action. And the more we take action, the more we grow as leaders and transform our communities. So, what action will you take today? Please share your actions and learning with us by emailing Podcast@ChangeCatalyst.co or on social media because we’d love to hear from you.
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Leading With Empathy & Allyship is an original show by Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. I appreciate you listening to our show and taking action as an ally. See you next week.
Host: Melinda Briana Epler
Melinda Briana Epler has over 25 years of experience developing business innovation and inclusion strategies for startups, Fortune 500 companies, and global NGOs.
As CEO of Change Catalyst, Melinda currently works with the tech industry to solve diversity and inclusion together. Using her background in storytelling and large-scale culture change, she is a strategic advisor for tech companies, tech hubs, and governments around the world. She co-leads a series of global solutions-focused conferences called Tech Inclusion, where she has partnered with over 450 tech companies and community organizations and hosted 43 solutions-focused diversity and inclusion events around the world.
Previously, Melinda was a Marketing and Culture Executive and award-winning documentary filmmaker – her film and television work includes projects that exposed the AIDS crisis in South Africa, explored women’s rights in Turkey, and prepared communities for the effects of climate change. She has worked on several television shows, including NBC’s The West Wing.
Melinda is a TED speaker. She speaks, mentors and writes about diversity and inclusion in tech, allyship, social entrepreneurship, underrepresented entrepreneurs and investing. She has spoken on hundreds of stages around the world, including SXSW, Grace Hopper, Wisdom 2.0, the World Bank, Obama White House, Clinton Foundation, Black Enterprise, Google, Indeed, Capital One and McKinsey.
Watch Melinda’s TED Talk
Change Catalyst Co-Founder Melinda Briana Epler has spoken across the globe in hundreds of venues and virtual events. Empathy, Allyship, Advocacy, Microaggressions, Inclusive Leadership, and Building Inclusive Teams are just some of the topics Melinda has spoken on. Let us know about your next speaking engagement needs! Melinda has also spoken on how to build organizational capacity to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, such as how to lead behavior change or how to build allies and advocates.
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