Dear CEO: Your Feel-Good Diversity Initiative is Undermined By Every Other Way You’re Doing Business

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Last week, I sat in huge ballroom full of entrepreneurs and cringed as a white male CEO gave a TED-style talk on how he solved diversity.

Yeah, that happened.

You see, he has realized his business – oh! also his industry – oh oh! also his city – were too white and too male, and so he co-launched an initiative to place a one person of color as a paid intern at each of several dozen local startups. He had written an editorial on it too (not the kind of searching op-ed that’s designed to explore potential solutions difficult problems; the PR kind that’s designed to position one as a “thought leader”), and word on the street is that he genuinely cares about progress.

Back on earth, I tried not to react visibly despite my growing discomfort, all while scanning the audience to see whether anyone was buying this.

Everyone was totally buying it. Like, hanging on every word. As in, the talk ended with everyone standing up while the CEO sang We Are the Champions. Not joking.

I mean, it was a solid speech in form and delivery; the speaker was charismatic and convincing (or was he just white and male? It can be hard to decipher the difference). His intended lesson was the value of getting out of one’s comfort zone, but without the self-awareness that his own zone of socially acceptable action, and therefore comfort, was miles wider than the majority of people in that room.

My own discomfort, which continued well after hastily leaving the room during the Queen ballad, was due to the anticipation that the result of this status-quo speech dressed in progressive clothing will actually be to make systemically over-privileged (SOP) people feel more comfortable.

After all, it was sponsored by a nonprofit group whose mission is to “support emerging leaders,” yet doesn’t admit people whose business revenue is less than $1 million per year.

(Ah, if only someone would create an entrepreneurial support program open to people when they need help the most: getting to viability and sustainability, let alone $1m revenue, which in entrepreneurship, is more the result of access to initial capital [=being an SOP] than being brilliant at business. Oh wait, I did.)

The thing is, it wasn’t the first time I watched a shot at diversity fall far short of the bullseye; nor, I expect, will it be the last.

The problem isn’t that a white male CEO had an epiphany and shared it. The problem is that historically underrepresented groups (let’s shorthand to HUG) have been recognizing and explaining the problems all along and do not readily receive a platform, let alone a standing ovation, for stating the obvious and offering a solution that requires no real effort by the SOP or significant change to systemic issues (this is what privilege looks like, btw).

The problem is that diversity initiatives like the one celebrated by this speech are not even close to enough, and worse, reinforce the faulty belief that complex problems can be solved with only increased awareness and one relatively easy and finite action.

This is the business equivalent of an Oscar-bait movie solving racism in two hours and making white audiences feel good versus the nuance and discomfort of a Spike Lee joint.

In the spirit of the Angela Davis admonition to change the things that I find unacceptable, instead of brushing off yet another step-back-disguised-as-a-step-forward, I decided to email the CEO directly, articulate my position, and use the whole thing as a rallying opportunity for entrepreneurs who truly care about checking our own privilege.

The intent is not to shame or attack SOPs, nor to pretend that I’m exempt from this inquiry. The goal is to challenge us all to do better.

Therefore, when it comes to issues of equality and equity, my ideal response is to:

  1. Call out the fuckery when it happens. (silence = complicity)
    1. a. Constantly remind my white male friends that as the most SOP in the room, and by extension, the only person who will be heard by other SOPs, they have even more onus to speak up.
  2. Before that, contact the person directly to have a productive conversation. (assume good intent)
  3. Articulate what I believe to be a better way of solving the problem. (be part of the solution)
  4. Create environments where women and other HUGs are in leadership and SOPs are expected to show up and play by the same rules. (take principled action)

Example: Years ago, I attended a panel event in Harlem celebrating Super Hot Startup which had just acquired $12 million in funding for its online product which explained coded black language to white people (double irony). When the floor was opened for audience questions, I asked what their position was on the underrepresentation of women in tech. Their reply: “We have a woman on our social media team!” Instead of flaming them on social media, I wrote an email to the founders explaining why this question should be taken seriously and, as a PR consultant, gave them suggestions on how to handle it better and offered to continue the conversation pro bono. They disappeared.

So, in the spirit of presenting potential solutions along with problems, here are some of the more subtle ways your bias manifests in business – specifically, with us disruptive, creative, couldn’t-possibly-be-blinded-by-years-of-patriarchy entrepreneurs.

Disclaimer: I’m privileged too! While I’m a woman of color, I’m also able-bodied, middle aged, heterosexual identifying, and I grew up in a white family with white privilege in a predominantly white, Christian, middle class environment. So while I am incentivized to solve these problems, I’m also down with SOP, and have benefited and continue to benefit from their advantages.

The solution to all of the issues I describe below is the same: realize where you are defaulting to SOP thinking (=young/white/male/straight/Christian/wealthy/traditional privileged), and then stop doing that. Not once, but daily.

(Or, All Day Every Day, if you prefer to Columbus your phrases. See #7.)

“It’s not that simple!” you protest.

Well, what if it is?

What if it is actually very simple, and all it requires is your commitment to sincerely and continually work on it?

Below is an incomplete list of the conscious and unconscious bias problems that perpetuate in American business, an brief explanation of how it goes down, and in italics, a specific way it has recently manifested in my real-life experience.

1. You Tell Yourself, “I’m Not the Problem Because [Token HUG]”
Hiring one intern who happens to be a person of color is not enough. A token person anywhere is not enough; it is a token. Rather than boosting that person, and by extension, that population from the sidelines, you’re giving them the added burden of representing the whole group (=emotional labor). See #9.

I was shocked when both Paige and I won 40Under40 the same year because I didn’t think they would honor two multiracial female entrepreneurs the same year. Good on you, PBJ! Everywhere else, note how orgs quota their lists, from media roundups to panel speakers. (see #11)

2. You Don’t Have HUGs on Your Board.
What, all the real decision making is being made by SOPs? Shocker.

Last week on LinkedIn, I posted my exasperation with the NPR ads for a Harvard program called Women on Boards. There should not be a program called Women on Boards. There should be a mandatory program called Male Leaders: Why You Need Women on Your Boards and Here is Your Deadline to Have 50% Representation on Your Board. See #9.

A paid board? What’s that? As a volunteer on a nonprofit board, I wanted to be on the organizational committee which oversees strategy, but was pushed to the fundraising (=party planning) committee. I run a business that teaches people how to run businesses. I do not have meaningful fundraising experience.

3. Your HUGs are Not Getting the Same Compensation and Opportunities as SOPs.
Salary. Days off. Career-making projects. Parental leave. Promotions. Leadership. Venture Capital. The ability to say no.

That whole work twice as hard to get half the results? It’s true in entrepreneurship too. My potential clients regularly opt for SOP competitors who have a fraction of my experience and track record, and who charge far more for their sub-par services.

4. You Excuse Your Lazy Hiring Practices By Blaming the HUGs
Oh, I’m sorry, you didn’t get enough diverse applicants so you mostly interviewed young white guys? Did you actively seek out HUG candidates, or did you default to where you found people before? Are you giving preference to people from your alma mater, friends of friends, or other institutions even more steeped in the status quo? How is your team supposed to diversify if referrals are coming from your ski club, alumni group, or church? Just because it takes more effort to set up new channels doesn’t mean it can’t – or shouldn’t – be done.

a. Last year, a Major Brand You Know rented out my space for an off-site meeting of a strategic group guiding a multibillion dollar industry overwhelmingly established and propped up by black males. On the team were one (conventionally very attractive) white woman, one black woman, and the rest were white males design bros – you know, the ones whose current uniform is all black, white sneakers, and air pods.

b. When hiring, I keep a list of my company’s core values next to the resume when I interview candidates so that I can check my unconscious assumptions and projections against our culture of progress and respect.

5. Your 1099s Aren’t Diverse Either
Interns are great, but what about the many more of us who are way past education and deep into needing a real paycheck? Employees are better, but what about everyone else you hire? Are your vendors and contractors and attorneys coaches and consultants and agencies owned and operated by HUGs?

Progressive people love to (talk about) support(ing) local businesses, but there’s a massive disconnect between buying produce and buying production. We go local with B2C purchases but neglect to do so with B2B decisions.

6. Your Open-To-All Events Program the Tastes of SOPs
Oh really, a golf tournament? How creative. If your first reaction was, “But, Tiger Woods!” please see #1.

Default daytime fundraiser: golf. Default networking time: happy hour. Default music: indie rock. Default caterer: the one you used last time. Bleh.

7. You Freely Use Ideas Created By HUGs
Chances are, you do not see that you are doing this. You are probably doing it anyway. This is Columbusing. Please stop.

a. A male entrepreneur I know regularly picks up and uses concepts female entrepreneurs have worked to create without crediting them. He has done this to me multiple times. He is oblivious.

b. A white woman in a very lucrative profession who heard me speak at her company’s conference called urgently asking me to evaluate her outline for an event she was hosting for fun because I host a similar event for business. When I explained that it is my intellectual property and that as a professional consultant, I charge for advising, she accused me of not being “abundant” enough. Unfortunately, my landlord does not currently accept “abundance mentality” as payment.

8. Your Org Chart is Extremely Top-Heavy with SOPs.orgchart
If your team page looks like this, you are doing it wrong.

This is the org chart page of our accounting contractor’s website. Yes, I sent an email to our account manager, but she can’t exactly protest it to her higher-ups; her job is on the line. It’s up to me to vote with my dollars, however, so as soon as I get more time/money (see #3) I’ll write the execs and change vendors.

9. You Are Burdening HUGs with Added Emotional Labor.
It is not the job of the HUG to explain the problem to you. If they choose to do so, that is extra.
It is not the job of the HUG to solve the problem for you. It is your job to do your part.

A high school classmate messaged me via Facebook to ask why a certain form of speech was offensive. This information was easily google-able. 

10. You Excuse Integration Because of Safe Space Groups.
No need to make sure the primary group is led by a mix of people if there’s a subgroup for women or people of color or gay people, right? Wrong. While we need safe spaces to discuss difficult issues on the road to equity, we also need an equitable number of seats at the main table.

a. I am constantly asked to speak at women’s organizations. I am almost never asked to speak at mixed groups.

b. People assume my business is for women. It is not, nor has it ever been advertised as such.

11. Your Big Events Showcase SOPs, or the Same Person Over & Over.
Why not a female keynote speaker? Why not more than one person of color on that panel even if it’s not a panel about diversity? I promise you, no matter what the subject, there are five other HUGs who can speak on it, so stop inviting the same token guy to headline every event.

I asked a colleague not to nominate my business for Minority Business of the Year because we deserve the main award for Business of the Year, no modifier necessary.

12. You Believe You’re the HUG.
If you are a straight person who finds yourself at a gay venue or a white person at a women’s networking event, this may make you the minority in the moment, but it in no way makes you a member of a systemically sidelined and marginalized population.

The most egregious form this takes lately is otherwise-woke male colleagues wistfully and ignorantly saying things like, “It’s not like I have access to all that loan money designated for women- and minority-owned businesses.”

DUDE. YOUR LOAN IS THE FACT THAT PEOPLE DON’T HESITATE TO PAY YOU ACTUAL MONEY FOR YOUR SERVICES BECAUSE THEY DON’T SUBCONSCIOUSLY DOUBT THAT YOU CAN DELIVER THEM.

13. Your Reaction to HUG Feedback or New Information is to Dismiss It.
You laugh off HUG input as “she’s just mad/jealous/hormonal/washed up/etc.” Or worse, you pretend to listen but then change nothing. You’ve dismissed my italicized experiences rather than considering their validity.

The other way to easily dismiss this information is to point out that HUGs do it to themselves. Yes, we do. We’re working on it. Like the fraught yet triumphant reclamation of words like “bitch” and “ni–er” and “f-g,” sometimes it’s the only way to take our power back. And no, it doesn’t mean you get to use those words too.

Regularly, a straight white male 60+ will walk into my retail-level business and compliment it and ask who is in charge. When I say me, they proceed to tell me how to do it better. No woman has ever done this.

Again, the solution to diversity and inclusion issues is to do better, to keep digging, getting curious, turning on the lights.

You cannot be woke without waking up.

In other words, don’t be that guy.

And please remember: it is not the job of your token leadership or advisor to be your magical negro and teach you a grand lesson, after which you will always be woke. You won’t. You will have to keep working on this every single day.

If you are like my straight white male friends, you just sighed in exhaustion.

Well, my friend, welcome to our world.


Artwork © Kija Lucas

One thought on “Dear CEO: Your Feel-Good Diversity Initiative is Undermined By Every Other Way You’re Doing Business

  1. This. All This and moarrrr. I started working on a startup idea—a business social networking platform that centered women and minorities over white male leadership. Think of it as an intersectional feminist Linkedin. We should talk!

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