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Inclusionary Pioneers: Making the Case for Diversity in the American Workforce

By Jan Lee

Communities talk about the value of diversity a lot these days. In our schools, our businesses and even in our support networks, fostering an inclusive environment where differences are valued and respected has become an assumed starting point to building a better, more cooperative living and working environment.

Of course, it wasn't always that way. It's taken decades -- some would say centuries -- to make the business case for diversity: that supporting gender and cultural inclusiveness is also essential for validating the brand trust of a company.

Today, we have the statistics to prove that diversity makes business sense. According to research published by McKinsey and Co., enterprises that embrace an inclusive business model perform better financially. Companies that are gender diverse are 15 percent more likely to outperform. And businesses that are ethnically diverse do even better: They are 35 percent more likely to excel beyond their industry median.

But as impressive as those numbers are, statistics often don't tell the whole story. They don't show, for example, what it's really like to be that "diversity pioneer" who lobbies for more inclusive hiring. They don't reveal what shapes the convictions of a leader dedicated to promoting more inclusiveness in the ranks. And they don't explain how difficult it is to be that self-driven leader who sees the gradual growth of a company's diversity as an extension of his or her own success.

We wanted to find out what kind of personal experiences shape the views of a diversity leader. What perceptions in his or her upbringing spoke loudest, and what concrete lessons did he or she learn about our multicultural world?  How did it mold this person's definitions of diversity, and what lessons did he or she try to share with others?

This week TriplePundit spoke with two experts who dedicated their careers to teaching about workplace diversity and inclusion. Both women worked extensively within the private sector and later turned to consultancy as a way to promote the concepts of diversity. Interestingly, both credited their global outlook to the environments in which they were raised, and the personal experiences they felt most shaped their lives. Yet, it was work experiences that motivated both women to adopt careers focused on diversity and inclusion.

First encounters: Shaping a place for diversity and inclusion

For author, speaker and consultant Marilyn Tam, growing up in British-ruled Hong Kong taught her many subtle lessons about multiculturalism.

Although her family spoke Chinese at home and in her community, "there was an overlay of British influence" that defined community life, Tam recalled. Britain transferred Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. But until that time, the English language and British culture were an integral part of Hong Kong's own culture and vibrant commerce.

"[The] understanding of diversity came early, not because it was something that was taught, but because it was something I experienced," Tam told TriplePundit.

But it was her later move to the States that cemented her understanding that there could be another world with entirely “new perspectives and cultural beliefs" than her own. There were not only different cultural celebrations and traditions to experience, but also "really strongly-held convictions that may or may not be reflective of somebody else’s truth,” let alone the community as a whole, Tam told us. The recognition of the world's diverse cultures "came early and was very impactful on my life," she continued.

As a child, the sense of being different came early for diversity strategist Lenora Billings-Harris as well. Billings-Harris was born and raised in the United States. "As an African-American student in classrooms where I usually was the only African American, there was this sense of other, the sense of being different," she told 3p. That sense of distinctness helped to form her own appreciation of diversity -- and her understanding that distinctiveness can be a bridge to cooperation.

"Nowadays I really can’t say diversity without saying inclusion," said Billings-Harris, who told us it was her early career in the automotive industry that cemented her realization that honoring and respecting diversity helped promote an inclusive world.

Tam's vision of diversity is similar. "Diversity is actually, for me, the opposite ... of what we should be talking about, which is really inclusion," Tam told us. "[A] lot of times when we say 'diversity,' it is out of the good intention of bringing everybody together and, at the same time, to honor the differences." She said Canada's somewhat unique vision of diversity embodies this principle best: a mosaic, the idea that "[each] person shines for who they are, and together we become so much more. We create a beautiful, simplistic, powerful picture and community."

Leveraging personal experience to build an inclusive world

But for both of these women, it was work experiences that helped crystalize a focus on diversity and inclusion. For Tam, the message came early in her career, after completing graduate school and working as an economic consultant. Imbued with a determination to find a job in which she could make "a positive influence," she applied to a position at a bank and landed an interview. She had the grades and work experience.  "It never occurred to me that anybody would look at me and say that I was unqualified based on some outside issues," Tam said.

When she didn't hear back from the employer, she called to follow up. The individual with whom she interviewed took the call. "We had kind of a nice conversation, but when it came to the key question ... he was kind but he basically said, in his own language of course, 'You are very nice but you are a girl, and girls are tellers.'" He also alluded to her ethnicity on the call, Tam said.

"It shocked me," she told us. "I have experienced many other [forms of] discrimination along the way, including being refused service in a restaurant. But it never occurred to me that, for a professional career, I would be denied the opportunity because of the way I looked – both in gender and in ethnicity."

"And that made me realize: They were losing. Of course I was hurt and surprised, but at the same time I thought, 'Wow! They are losing too, because I have so much to give. And they will never find out [just] because of the way I look.'"

This epiphany, Tam said, helped shape her business career and her outlook toward the inclusive workplace. Her drive to make a positive influence found its niche several times in some of the biggest corporations in the U.S. She served as CEO of Aveda Corp, president of Reebok apparel and retail, and vice president of Nike -- helping to turn concepts like employee wellness and inclusive hiring into guiding principles for today's businesses. The founder of four businesses, she is the recipient of several humanitarian awards, including the Artemis Award (Greece) for her business and humanitarian work, and the Reebok Human Rights Award for her efforts to promote humanitarian principles. Her books, "How to Get What You Want," which was published in 2003; "The Happiness Choice," (2013) and most recent "Soul Over Matter," (2016) have been equally well received.

For Billing-Harris, it was the heart-wrenching admission from a student that helped her find her "calling" as a diversity leader. "I had gone to South Africa to deliver a customer service program [for the automotive industry]," Billings-Harris said. It was a pivotal moment in South African history: Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. "So people were very afraid," she recalled. "[Never] on the continent of Africa had a country been moved to democracy without lots of bloodshed."

After the workshop, a woman came up to the front of the room to speak with her. Billings-Harris already knew this was an unusual visit because she was told she would be delivering the workshop to an all-male audience. "Her reaction told me something was awry," Billings-Harris recalled. And after they talked, she learned why.

"It was the first time ever in her life ... that she had seen a professional Black person, let alone a professional Black female." At that time in South Africa's history, the concept of a Black professional woman delivering a customer service program to a room of all-male employees was unheard of. "So it was shocking to her because her culture had taught her that Black people had no value. And she didn’t expect that I would be able to teach her anything. So at the end of a day together, my being there enabled her to see the possibilities and to begin to see how inhumane the treatment had been of Colored Africans – anyone who was not white."

Billings-Harris said that encounter helped the woman see that "this was just not right, and how much South Africa as a country would lose if they did not recognize the potential of the Black South Africans in their country.

"We cried in each others' arms. And as she told me this experience helped her to [realize] that she had to go home and convince the men in her life to put down their weapons. At that moment," she told us, "I knew I needed to do this work."

Billings-Harris used the momentum of that experience to launch her own consultancy business, turning her focus toward teaching business leaders how to leverage diversity and improved communication to build inclusive, stronger companies. Her publications include the books The Diversity Advantage: Guide to Making Diversity Work, (3rd ed., 2013) and "Trailblazers: How Top Business Leaders are Accelerating Results through Inclusion and Diversity" (co-author with Redia Anderson, 2010), as well as a selection of articles, recordings and webinar trainings.  She has been recognized by Diversity Woman Magazine as one of the country's top 20 diversity leaders, and like Tam, she continues to use her expertise to help educate and promote the principles of diversity and inclusion around the globe, including in Israel and South Africa.

Lessons of diversity and inclusion

Both Tam and Billings-Harris recognized concrete lessons that have become the underpinnings to their messages regarding diversity.

"Diversity is an absolutely crucial [part] of a company’s DNA management and every aspect of its work,” Tam told us. Today's population growth in developing nations will most likely yield tomorrow's workforce. Strategies that promote diversity and inclusion on all levels now will be come a defining metric for tomorrow's successful businesses, she concluded.

"All of us are responsible for creating that inclusive environment that enables us to take advantage in a positive way of diversity among us," Billings-Harris said. It's a viewpoint embodied by the South African expression ubuntu, and which she has adopted as the definition of what she wants to impart in her teachings: "I am because we are, and we are because I am."

"We're all responsible" for promoting diversity and inclusion, she concluded firmly. So, now the question remains: How will you take part?

Images: 1) Flickr/Oregon Department of Transportation; 2) Marilyn Tam; 3) Lenora Billings-Harris

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Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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