These eight diversity mavericks are redefining how we consider, approach, and live diversity
When I was nine, I moved from rural Maryland to a small town in northeast Georgia. From the outset, it was obvious that I was different from the other kids. I wasn’t “white” and I wasn’t “black.” But at the time, “South Asian” was not an available box to check off when identifying myself. I also wasn’t Christian. One might presume that being a minority (in religion and race) in a place like Toccoa, Georgia, would have a negative effect on me. In fact, it helped me appreciate my heritage and want to share my culture and story with the curious community I found myself surrounded by. This ability to be comfortable being “different,” to connect with people—and to accept the curiosity of others and reciprocate that curiosity—is what led me to be a journalist.
As a media professional and diversity practitioner, I believe that diversity and inclusion are not a business division—they’re everyone’s business.
Here, we celebrate some of the many individuals who are re(thinking) diversity and how it applies in their own field. Whether they are creating talent pipelines, bridging gaps, or sharing stories of diverse people, their ability to appreciate and leverage their own diversity, and that of those around them, makes each a key asset to their organization and the communities they serve and represent. They see and promote diversity of thought in all that they do and understand its value in our increasingly connected and multicultural society.
— Maria Ebrahimji
Maria Ebrahimji is an award-winning journalist, media consultant, diversity strategist, and co-founder of I Speak for Myself, Inc., a book publishing company focused on faith and culture. • Kimberly Olson is DW’s managing editor.
The Leadership Guru
Chief Leadership Officer, Levo League
In middle school, Tiffany Dufu lost an election for class president. “It was terrifying,” she remembers. “But when I showed up at school the next day, I learned the most important lesson: that you can fail, show up the next morning, and the world hasn’t fallen apart.” That power-on attitude has propelled Dufu to become a renowned expert and speaker on women’s and Gen Y leadership. A member of the launch team for Lean In and a former president of the White House Project (a nonprofit dedicated to increasing female participation in businesses, institutions, and government), Dufu has been named to Fast Company’s League of Extraordinary Women.
She now brings her expertise to Levo League, a start-up that provides Gen Y women a supportive community and the career resources they need to achieve success. “Advancing women and girls is my life’s work because I believe we need a diversity of voices and perspectives driving the decisions that impact all of us,” Dufu says. “At the highest levels, women are leading at about 18 percent, despite the fact that we are half of college graduates. I’m motivated to help create institutions where women can bring their full selves to the table, and I want every woman to know that she is the most powerful change agent in her own journey.”
She believes that requires the right mind-set. “Women are socialized to believe that if they just put their heads down, achieve results, and outperform, they’ll be rewarded,” Dufu says. “This works in school, but the workplace is a completely different ecosystem to navigate. At the office, it’s possible to work your butt off and achieve great results but still get passed over for promotion. Levo provides the network, skills, and inspiration women are hungry for, to help them figure it all out and feel confident about their choices.”
John A. Powell
Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society; Professor of Law, African American and Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley
To break through the roadblocks to creating an inclusive and just society, it’s important to understand the underpinnings of those roadblocks. That’s part of the mission of the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley, led by john a. powell, an internationally recognized expert on civil rights and liberties who founded the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota, taught law at Harvard University and Columbia University, and has worked around the globe.
The Haas Institute harnesses the skills of nearly a hundred researchers—including eight endowed chairs focused on diversity and inclusion—to gain a deep understanding of marginalization. While we may think of “race” as being fixed, for example, powell says that the concept of race dates back only to about the 16th century and is actually quite fluid. “Irish, Armenian, and Italian were racialized categories well into the early 20th century but are now viewed as ‘white,’” he explains. “Racial categories, racial boundaries, racial meanings and stereotypes, and racial attitudes are subject to change over time.”
The institute investigates race and other forms of marginalization, such as gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. Drawing on its research, it partners with community groups, policy makers, and communicators to reframe public discourse and enact change. It is helping grassroots community organizations in Richmond, California, better advocate for local policy that will generate more inclusive opportunity, for example. It is even looking at its own university, UC Berkeley, and how its activities affect marginalized communities. As powell says, “Our role in these partnerships is to ensure that marginalized communities have the technical, legal, and research capacity needed to support their full participation in developing and advocating for a vision of greater opportunity.”
Senior Talent Acquisition Partner, Coca-Cola North America Group
A talent acquisition specialist and career coach, Brooke Camp has helped professionals at all levels launch and grow their careers. She led recruitment efforts for editorial professionals at CNN (TBS, Inc.) and helped develop and lead diversity recruitment strategy at NBC News, before joining the Coca-Cola Company.
“In my line of work, diversity is, by nature, a part of the daily conversation,” she says. “Our recruitment efforts and the employee population internally should reflect the diversity of our brands, along with our consumers who come from every walk of life and every corner of the planet. I’m proud to work with such a globally recognized brand that makes products that I love to consume myself.”
Coca-Cola is actively hiring veterans and diverse MBAs, while also reaching out to the LGBT, African American, Asian, and Hispanic communities and Americans with disabilities, among others. The company has in-house Business Resource Groups that encourage development and collaboration, which help retain employees.
“With respect to recruitment, I support our field operations, which means I have business relationships with leadership teams at the various Coke plants and distribution centers across the country,” Camp says. “Many are small markets, each with its own set of challenges unique to its market, geography, and demographic. My partnership with them is vital to developing an intimate and effective diversity recruitment strategy that’s unique to their own market.”
Camp and her colleagues must be doing something right. As of late 2013, an impressive 44 percent of the Coca-Cola Company’s U.S. workforce was multicultural.
Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, Blink Consulting
Alison Park, through her own experience of diversity trainings, noticed that while they were well intended, they didn’t seem to effect any substantive, sustained changes. “The same divide persisted between kids who were thriving and kids who were just surviving,” she says.
So with a BA in African studies from Yale University and two master’s degrees from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in hand, she launched Blink Consulting, a firm that has partnered with more than 60 schools to rethink diversity initiatives to help students of all identities and cultures learn and thrive in the classroom.
“My work is about having professional, practice- focused conversations that are grounded in research about human development and interactions, inclusive of diverse perspectives and experiences,” Park says. Blink helps clients address micro-aggressions, stereotype effects, and other forms of explicit and implicit discrimination and inequity. Further, the firm trains educators to model and teach cultural competency, so they can better prepare students to be 21st-century leaders.
Park has seen kids and adults make fundamental shifts, from a defensive stance to a leaning into inquiry. “When they feel safe enough to explore, I can see the shift in their physical posture and feel it in the energy they bring to the group,” she says. “What I value most about these reframing moments is that they indicate the potential of moving through a place of being stuck when it comes to diversity, to empowerment and opportunities for discerning action.”
And as Park teaches, she also learns. “My most rewarding moments are selfish: they’re my own growth, when I notice my own assumptions and expand my thinking in dialogue with the folks whose professional growth I’m there to facilitate.”
The Pipeline Builder
CEO and Board Chair, Women Who Code
A senior engineer named Sandi had a career highlight moment at Google I/O, a conference attended by thousands of software developers, when the Android app she’d built was featured in the keynote address. A junior engineer named Brittany partnered with another woman to compete at a hackathon. Jouhan, an engineer, moved to the San Francisco Bay Area without a plan, but then quickly landed a job in engineering.
All three say that they wouldn’t have reached their goals without Women Who Code, a global nonprofit that helps women excel in tech careers. Helping women make those sorts of leaps is what drives CEO Alaina Percival, who formerly worked at a start-up that was acquired by Yahoo! and currently serves as an advisor to CodePath. To that end, Women Who Code offers technical study groups, hack nights, and panel discussions with industry influencers.
Women make up half the population, but they often represent only 15 to 17 percent of engineers at major tech companies. “It is the ‘little’ things that build up over time that make it harder for women to excel in their tech careers,” Percival says. “With gender parity, many of these would simply no longer be accepted as the norm, and women will find it easer to stay in and excel in their careers.”
And that would benefit not just women but also companies. “We are currently on track to be short 1 million engineers by 2020, and some of these roles can easily be made up by getting underrepresented groups properly represented,” Percival says.
Women Who Code’s audacious goal is to connect 1 million women in tech by 2019, and it’s well on the way. To date, the organization has held more than 700 events globally for 12,000 members spanning 14 countries—and is growing by 1,000 women per month.
Author of Written in the Stars, blogger (aishasaeed.com), teacher, and attorney
A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center revealed that, of the more than 3,000 children’s books released in 2013, only 7.9 percent contained any diversity. That didn’t surprise Aisha Saeed, the mother of two young boys who are Muslim and Pakistani. Long frustrated by the issue, Saeed joined forces with a handful of others who felt the same way. “People began joining in on this conversation on social media,” Saeed said. “And [author] Ellen Oh said, ‘Let’s raise our voices into a roar that can’t be ignored.’” So Saeed tapped out the first tweet to launch the awareness campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks, which went viral, garnering more than 162 million impressions on Twitter alone.
The We Need Diverse Books campaign is getting people engaged and also helps promote diverse books like Saeed’s forthcoming young adult novel, Written in the Stars (Penguin/Nancy Paulsen Books), the tale of a young woman being thrust into an unwanted marriage. “I love that [my sons] see the cover of my book and see a young Pakistani American girl juxtaposed against a beautiful mosque in the background,” Saeed says. “Such visuals are powerful for young children. I did not have this, and I grew up thinking my stories did not matter. Reading about people who are different from us also serves as a window into perspectives we may never otherwise know. We can learn empathy and respect for one another by simply opening up a good book.”
CEO, National Center for Civil and Human Rights
In 2005, Doug Shipman was asked by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin to begin research to create an institution that would celebrate the bravery of civil and human rights activists and inspire younger generations to get engaged. He leapt at the chance. “I have long held a personal interest in civil and human rights issues, having studied them during my undergraduate years at Emory University and again at the Harvard Divinity School,” says Shipman, who is also a parent with his Indian American wife. “I’m drawn to situations where I can contribute a new perspective to an important topic.”
He began by engaging in conversations with key members of the Atlanta, civil rights, and human rights communities. Shipman ultimately left his position at a top global consulting firm to launch the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, a sprawling 43,000-square-foot facility that uses communal storytelling to help visitors gain a deeper understanding of the world.
The innovative center features thought-provoking exhibitions, from an interactive human rights exhibit to personal papers and items that belonged to Martin Luther King Jr. The exhibits spark some heartfelt discussions. “One day, I watched a grandmother share stories she had never told, with her grandchildren,” Shipman says. “Young folks have these ‘aha’ moments when they sit at our lunch-counter simulators and experience what it was like to be a sit-in protester in the 1960s. Individuals realize that purchasing flowers may be hurting human rights in another country. Each day, these small ‘discoveries’ happen at the center. When visitors say they see themselves and the world differently, I’m excited to know that I helped create that moment.”
The Hiring Manager
Director of Content, NerdWallet.com
At a time when some of the top companies in Silicon Valley are coming under the microscope for their lack of diversity, NerdWallet stands as a shining example of what’s possible. The start-up—which helps millions of consumers make smart financial decisions—has been expanding its staff of journalists to reflect the diversity of its users, an effort led by Maggie Leung.
Leung’s career has taken her from freelancing as a teenager for her hometown newspaper on Guam to stints at CNN, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. To bring the best talent to NerdWallet, the company casts its net nationwide, hiring many people who’ve never worked in Silicon Valley or even in tech. “We’re a start-up in Silicon Valley, yet our leadership team is more than 50 percent women,” Leung says. “We have 20-somethings and 60-somethings working side by side; we have telecommuters across the country—in cities and rural settings; we have everyone from recent grads with loads of college debt to established professionals who’ve achieved financial security. We’re a company of about 95 people at this point, and yet we’ve already achieved the diversity that other companies aim for.”
Leung recently had a moment of joyful reflection when she took a new hire to lunch in NerdWallet’s San Francisco neighborhood, which is bursting with start-ups. “He’s a white man with a hearing aid and a bum knee in his 60s,” she says. “I’m an Asian American woman in my 40s. I noticed we were so unlike the throngs of techies who were out having lunch—many white men in their 20s and 30s. During another new-hire lunch, it was me and a 40-something African American woman. Again, we stood out. Those contrasts always remind me how differently we hire at NerdWallet versus other start-ups.” DW