The Long Game of Diversity and Inclusion

Professor Ashleigh Rosette prompts the uncomfortable conversations

February 17, 2017
Diversity, Leadership

Creating a diverse and inclusive organization takes time, which is something business leaders often feel they lack.

"We as business leaders have a quarterly mindset; it's ingrained in us," said Doug Speight, a Durham-based entrepreneur. "But this is not short term work. This is as long term as anything has ever been. You're not going to get results immediately. Behavioral modification takes time."

Speight was speaking to the 2017 Sustainable Business and Social Impact Conference at Duke University's Fuqua of Business. The discussion was moderated by Professor Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, who studies diversity and leadership.

Rosette said diversity and inclusion are more complicated than their definitions — difference and acceptance, respectively — would suggest, incorporating as they do issues of race, gender, class, age, function educational background, tenure and intellect.

"We know our organizations function better when they value diversity, and when the right processes are in place" she said. Those processes can leverage the advantages that can come from different perspectives and bring about a sense of belonging and respect, Rosette said.

"When organizations can harness those two things," she said, "we know they perform better."

Upon graduating from Fuqua's Daytime MBA program in 2012, Joanne Sprague took over Friendfactor, a small business designed to organize allies of the LGBT community. Sprague said she often encountered "the false assumption that diversity is a smaller problem than it actually is.

"I can't tell you the number of companies I went to pitch who would say, 'Oh, we don't have this problem, we're a meritocracy.' But it's a false meritocracy in which people just think they're only judging people on the quality of their work."

Sprague said she saw a lot of defensiveness and shame.

"Both of those are very natural, but neither of them are very helpful," she said. "People have to experience that, and come out of that, and turn that into actions."

As CEO of Friendfactor, Sprague said it was easy to be nimble and responsive. Since moving to Facebook, where she is marketing manager of social progress, Sprague has seen the other side of the equation, working for a company with a user community larger than the most populous nation on the planet, where change takes time.

"It's really easy to move a pebble," she said. "It's very hard to move a boulder."

Rosette said silence is a common response when diversity is discussed. She said some people aren't sure how their opinion will be received, others just don't want to be the lone dissenting voice. The simplest approach, Rosette said, is to call out the elephant in the room and acknowledge how difficult these conversations can sometimes be.

"You still want to engage, because you can learn from both categories of individual," she said. "Simply say, 'Look, this makes us uncomfortable, we understand why it makes us uncomfortable, but we can still benefit by communicating our respective viewpoints and learning from each other."

Deborah Stroman, a professor of organizational behavior at The Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, said she has found when people and organizations don't address diversity, "either they don't have the skillset, or they don't have the will."

Organizations must take an honest look at their histories, which takes courage, "especially in roles of influence," Stroman said.

"We have a courage issue," she said. "People are in denial. We've spent decades in denial."

Lee Baker, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke, said "people get a little wacky" when their privilege is questioned. But, he added, simply adding diversity to the workforce isn't enough, and the difficult conversations have to be had.

"The real power in diversity comes from leveraging that bridging social power, where you have to see from that other person's perspective," he said. "Just adding color and stirring doesn't get you where you want."

Travis Starkey is building a social venture accelerator at Teach For America, where he is director for alumni impact. To address diversity, Starkey said, is to accept being constantly uncomfortable.

"It's not just about learning," he said. "It's about knowing that you're going to be uncomfortable constantly if you actively embrace that kind of work. And that means you're learning and you're growing."

Durham entrepreneur Speight founded a financial tech company and is entrepreneur-in-residence at American Underground, a startup incubator. He said only 1 percent of venture capital goes to people of color and that entrepreneurial  support organizations need different channels to reach disparate areas of the community.

Speight said finding common ground and building a culture of mutual trust are essential for firms to see the need and the value in diversity.

"There are economic implications to having a lack of diversity and inclusion," he said. "People have to believe it's the right thing, and that there's a business case for it."

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