Inclusive Entrepreneurship at SXSW with SHE Media and Rolling Stone: Jennifer Joins Kathryn Finney, Denise Hamilton and Jen Risi Live in Austin

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This episode was recorded live at the SXSW Conference and presented by Rolling Stone and SHE Media. The conversation was moderated by Denise Hamilton, Inclusion Strategist & CEO of WatchHerWork and the panelists were Kathryn Finney, Managing Partner, Genius Guild, Jennifer Risi, Founder and President of The Sway Effect, and Jennifer Brown.

The panelists shared their thoughts about how individuals and companies can work towards a more inclusive and equitable workplace. They also shared insights about what it means to cultivate inclusion, how to measure success, the importance of core values, and the role of technology.

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

KATHRYN FINNEY: Out of 2020, we’ve seen there was a lot of diversity theater. It was really this moment in which people were called and it was just mad rush to do really anything. But it wasn’t really a commitment mostly because there weren’t real metrics behind it. There wasn’t real thought behind the way in which they were going to come out into the space. And so now two years later where we’re in a downturn economy and things are not that great anymore, we’re now seeing that theater maybe being like a low budget streaming TV show now instead of this big production. And so where do we go from here? How do we turn this into a movement?

DOUG FORESTA: “The Will To Change” is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, dynamic speaker, bestselling author, and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards the new, more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore of productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results. Informed by nearly two decades of consulting to Fortune 500 companies, she and her team advised top companies on building cultures of belonging in times of great upheaval and uncertainty. And now onto the episode.

Hello and welcome back to “The Will To Change.” This is Doug Foresta, and of course, I’m here with Jennifer. This episode was actually recorded live at the South by Southwest Conference. It was presented by Rolling Stone and She Media. And we’ll say more, but Jennifer, this is so cool.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, it was really cool. It was great. It was my first time. I was supposed to go to South by Southwest, like so many people maybe, before the pandemic.

And then this popped up. I was there to do a bunch of book activities with my co-author for Beyond Diversity, Rohit Bhargava and with Chhavi, his partner, and a bunch of his team. And I brought some JBCers with me. It was really fun. It was such an experience, Doug. I was told that it was half the people that are normally there and I was like, “Oh my goodness. That’s a thing. There’s a lot.”

DOUG FORESTA: Oh my gosh. Well, let’s talk about, for example, some of the things. I know you went there with Rohit, right?


DOUG FORESTA: With Rohit Bhargava, your co-author.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

DOUG FORESTA: Tell us a little bit about what you did down there.

JENNIFER BROWN: We did a book event and a signing, and we did a DEI gathering also. We actually went through and invited everyone that was on the agenda that was presenting on the topic in any way, with any hat on. And we ended up with a packed really fun night at a local restaurant and met within South by Southwest which is, I remember the days when I tried to get a panel in on DEI on the topic and was refused. All of a sudden it’s the thing. We had a lot of fun connecting with that sub-community and that’s the thing about South By, there’s so many different things going on all at once and you wander around and there’s so much serendipity. You meet up with people, you go to some other place. And that’s how we ended up… I was asked very close to the date to join a panel hosted by, like you said, She Media and Rolling Stone at their venue.

They had their own venue with their own speakers and agenda and food, which was great, because you don’t get time to eat at South By Southwest. And this panel is just incredible. And this is the audio that you all are going to hear today. And I didn’t know anyone that was on the panel originally. Now I know them and not only do I know them, but actually we have two of the four panelists that will be coming back on “The Will To Change” in a fireside chat with each other as a takeover episode. I wanted to share who these leaders are, so you can keep an eye out. And also, so maybe as you’re listening, you can identify some voices here on this panel discussion. Denise Hamilton was the moderator and she’s an inclusion strategist and CEO of Watch Her Work and an incredible human with so much passion and expertise. It was incredible to see her moderate this so expertly.

And then for our panelists, we had Kathryn Finney who’s the managing partner of Genius Guild and has a book coming out. She is a VC, one of the few Black women VCs in the world. The book is called Build The Damn Thing, out June 7th. And the subtitle is “How to Start a Successful Business If You’re Not a White Guy.”

DOUG FORESTA: I love that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Kathryn’s incredible. Kathryn and Denise will be coming on “The Will To Change” for an episode take over in June. Stay posted for that. And then Jen Risi also joined us, who’s the founder and president of The Sway Effect and then yours truly. Doug, we might need to apologize, the audio got a little patchy in places, everybody, so apologies for that. But Doug, you have worked your magic and rescued the files.

DOUG FORESTA: There’s just little moments here and there, you might hear some background humming. It happened in a real venue.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, for sure. For sure. Yeah everybody, and at South By I was also able to go and support a couple other “Will To Change” guests and author and friends of mine. One was Melinda Epler who you all know writes on allyship and was on “The Will To Change,” I think, a couple times. And I’ve been on her podcast as well. If you don’t know Melinda’s work, please check it out. But she was there at South By. And then there were others too, Doug, that were there, that I went to their events.

DOUG FORESTA: Yes. So Deepa Purushothaman, who has been on, most recently, she also was on several times, but most recently episode 203 back in March. So I encourage people to check that out as well. So you, I understand you were also supporting Deepa there too, correct?

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yep. And her book just came out. It’s called The Few, the First, the Only, so please do check out episode 203. If you want to hear more about her story and she’s so strategic and has a very specific and empowering message for women of color in particular. It was really great to see her and this just this whole conversation at South by Southwest was, as I understand it, something that wouldn’t have happened in the past and just hats off to She Media and Rolling Stone for creating such a beautiful event and space and prioritizing this. I hope there’s more that we can do with them. But you know, in the meantime I hope everybody enjoys this really hard-hitting conversation because that’s Denise’s style. So I think everybody will see what I mean. And she’s just incredible. She has so many exciting things in her future. And in fact, speaking of that, she and Kathryn were last weekend out at TED in I think Vancouver, the actual TED conference, I don’t think speaking, but we’re there and we’ll likely be speakers in the future. I’m rooting them both on. I’m sure Denise has book news in the future as well, just maybe not as quickly as Kathryn does, but please support both of these amazing voices in our community and enjoy the episode.

KATHRYN FINNEY: My name is Kathryn Finney. I’m the managing general partner of Genius Guild. I’m also an author of a new book called Build the Damn Thing: How to Build a Company When You’re Not a Rich White Guy, [inaudible 00:07:28]. I’m so excited to be here to be on this panel today.

JENNIFER RISI: I’m Jennifer Risi. I’m the founder and president of The Sway Effect. The Sway Effect is a marketing communications agency. I’m Thrilled to be here.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hey everybody, I’m Jennifer Brown. I have been in the DEI consulting world for 20 years before it was a thing.

DENISE HAMILTON: Before it was sexy? You were here before it was sexy, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Thank you. I write on inclusive leadership and I have a new book called Beyond Diversity with Rohit Bhargava who’s giving a wonderful keynote on Monday. So check that out.

DENISE HAMILTON: Amazing. So I promise you, you have all different perspectives and Jennifer, can you help us define inclusion? Let’s just define the terms before we even get into this convo.

JENNIFER BROWN: Totally. It used to be just the D in DEI, right? We were looking for representation. And then we realized that inclusion is really how that diversity is enabled to contribute. So that’s why inclusion became a necessary part of it. It was D and I, and then we added the E for equity, which to me is the systems work. It’s the systems change that we need. And that’s the hard we were talking about it earlier. It’s almost like there’s an escalating difficulty from D to I to E because the systems work takes a lot of courage and a lot of sometimes resources, sometimes not, but just really clarity about the fact that the workplace is not built by and for most of us to succeed and to thrive. We’ve got to tackle it at the root.

Inclusion is the how. It’s the behavioral skillset, I think, and competency of creating enough psychological safety and equity around people that they can be creative because they feel a sense of belonging. And that’s where we all create from, isn’t it? There’s nothing more important than that.

DENISE HAMILTON: Absolutely. So as I think about this work, disclaimer, I am inappropriately optimistic. I want to say that, because I think it’s really important. I think of us as being in the messy middle. If you interrupt the stage between a caterpillar and a butterfly and you open up that chrysalis, it is disgusting. It’s terrible, it’s mangled, it’s mushy, it’s a mess. But I think that’s where we are in the messy middle. So as we think about inclusion, Kathryn, what is the necessary work of this time?

KATHRYN FINNEY: Oh gosh. I think really we’re in a really interesting time period as you highlighted, and for the first time, maybe in the history of the, at least working modern world, companies, people have had to think about where your staff, your fellow colleagues live, what environment do they have at home. If you remember at the beginning of the pandemic, how shocked many of us were to see into peoples’ homes, because we actually could see how everyone was living. Prior to the pandemic, you didn’t have to care about that. We had these three separate spaces: your workspace, your play space, your home space. And now they all collapse. And so the work that has to be done now is really this understanding, at a very basic human level, of what each person is going through.

And from a business perspective, I’m a venture capitalist in investments. These were not discussions we had to think about. And especially when it comes to inclusion, how many companies knew what was really going on in the homes of their employees, what type of support that they needed outside of the work environment, all of these things that weren’t necessarily a part of inclusion and diversity usually was spoken in terms of race, these things weren’t thought of. And so I think now the type of work is really getting back to the human level. Having discussions and some very tough questions that we have to ask each other. Yeah.

DENISE HAMILTON: What are the things that organizations need to be leaning into right now? What do we need to do all day?

JENNIFER RISI: My world is communications. I get asked a lot, what actually is really happening [inaudible 00:11:30] call bullshit because so many brands are just putting stuff out there just because it’s the right thing… They think it’s the right thing to do. They’re going to put the message out, but what are they actually doing to drive change? How we work is we counsel at the C-suite level that D and I cannot be an afterthought. D and I needs to be a central part of your business strategy. And we push our clients and most of our CEOs are the white man in the corner. And we push them to really understand different perspectives. Some get it, some don’t, but we talk to them about the fact that it has to be central. It has to be integral. You have to set metrics and you need to really track it over time.

Because if you don’t set metrics of what you’re going to achieve, what you want to achieve, put it into your staff’s KPIs, you could just keep talking and talking and talking, and you’re not going to see anything actually happen.

KATHRYN FINNEY: I think the question is for a lot of people, was 2020 a moment or a movement? And I think out of 2020, we’ve seen, there was a lot of diversity theater that’s come out. It was really this moment in which people were called and it was just mad rush to do really anything Black [inaudible 00:12:39]. But it wasn’t really a commitment mostly because there weren’t real metrics behind it. There wasn’t real thought behind the way in which they were going to come out into the space. Now two years later, where we’re in a downturn economy and things are not that great anymore, we’re now seeing that theater maybe being like a low-budget streaming TV show now instead of this big production. Where do we go from here? How do we turn this into a movement?

DENISE HAMILTON: I think one of the things that was really interesting after the catalytic murder of George Floyd and I never, miss an opportunity. I say the murder of George, I don’t say the George Floyd incident. What happened with George Floyd. I think that’s really important language, but it was so catalytic and sent everybody into the marketplace of do something. Jennifer, I’d love for you to talk about the skills required to do something. Because what I think we saw is in my world, I think of inclusion as being on a scale from one to 10, 10 being the hella wokes, they’ve got the Benneton ad in the marketing materials. They’re doing all the speeches, all the classes, all the ERGs, they’re doing all the things and one being, “I don’t even know what DEI stands for.”

If we’re on that continuum, just because you are the best at selling sprockets and you are the CEO of the company, you might be at a 1.5 in this DEI work. And all of a sudden you are in charge of it. What are you seeing as somebody who’s been in the industry for a long time in terms of the influx of people who are tinkering and dabbling. Love to hear your thoughts on that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, I agree. We had a bunch of people wake up and try to step in and then realize they lacked the competency, the understanding of what does this look like in practice and then realizing, “Oh my goodness, I’m afraid because I might make a mistake and I don’t, I’m not able. I haven’t been preparing.”

I feel like I’ve been sounding the alarm for years, prepare. The workforce is changing. The marketplace is changing their expectations on brands and leaders. And I think leaders of a certain identity, white male cisgender, are the least equipped and prepared because they don’t have the lived experience. We all live in our bubbles and we have a very limited exposure to difference in our personal lives and also in the workplace. It’s catch up. We’re in catch mode and some people are trying to keep up, but they’re in this like catch-22 where they don’t have the language and skills and the courage because courage is another thing, the will to show up and get it wrong and be brave and say “I’m learning.” And being transparent about learning.

So you ask what skills. What I’d like to see leaders really inhabit is transparency, vulnerability, empathy at the front. Emotional intelligence. When they say, “Jennifer, there’s too many things to keep track of in terms of social movements,” I’m like, “You can walk and chew gum at the same time. You have to learn how to know what’s going on for every single identity. You should know if you’re a leader, this is what you signed up to do. You should know what your employees are bringing into the workplace every day and what they’re struggling with. And then you should speak to it. Don’t stay silent.” Imagine learning a new language. I think that’s what our leaders are wrestling with because of all those reasons. Can we create learning environments where it’s okay to learn and push into it without being canceled, which is another big fear, I think that a lot of people have of getting it wrong.

So what do we do about that? The alternative of everybody going silent because of fear is not acceptable to me. We have to figure out a different way to hold space for people as they step into becoming advocates.

KATHRYN FINNEY: To piggyback on what Jen is saying, I have a really good friend who’s like top white dude and it was right after the 2016 presidential election. He calls me because he’s very distraught. “I don’t know what happened. I’m confused. What should I do?” And he was complaining, complaining, complaining. And I let him complain for a good five minutes and then said, “You know what? You have power. You are in a position in which you get into rooms I will never ever be invited into, ever. You sit at tables I will never be able to sit at, so use your power. You can do that. Take someone like me around. You can actually invite someone like me to sit at that table because you have that power.”

And what he said to me just so shocked me. He said, “I never thought of that before because I’ve always been looking in front of me. And while I’m successful, I’m not Steve Jobs. I’m not Bill Gates. And that’s who I was seeing in front of me. But I didn’t realize how far ahead I was of everyone else behind me. I had never had that perspective.” And he is like… I’m like, “You’re the CEO of your own company. You can invite whoever you want to the meeting. You don’t need permission,” but he had never thought of it in that sort of way. And I think really giving particularly those who are in positions of power and mostly it is white men. You have the power to change. You literally can do it.

And for many of you, you have a birthright that you can’t even get rid of even if you wanted to. You walk into a store, no one’s following you around. I walk in the store, they follow me around. Doesn’t matter what my income is. You have this birthright, so use it. You’re like Prince Harry, you can move to Santa Barbara, you’re still royalty. Use that power. Feel comfortable in it, be bold in that. And that’s one of the ways that we can start to make change.

DENISE HAMILTON: I think that skillset piece and figuring out what are the actual actions? What can I actually do? I have to be honest. I think there’s an anger that is in the work that… Remember I talked about that continuum of one to 10, let’s be honest. We’re mad at everybody who’s one to four. We’re mad at them. We want them to do better. We want them to step up. There’s a lot of people in that one to four. And if we don’t figure out a way to share the skills and to bring them along, we’re going to have some, we’re going to have some trouble.

JENNIFER RISI: I would say what you were talking about earlier is I see in that one to four the level of uncomfortability, afraid of making a mistake, afraid of… We advise them all the time, try, try, try it. What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Your teams will be proud of you for doing it. Your customers will feel good about it. But there is this innate fear of messing up, being canceled. They’ve seen it too much. It’s almost like [inaudible 00:19:44] sometimes feeds into that because we need to also support these people that have power to feel brave enough to do it, to make changes.

DENISE HAMILTON: But how do we do that? How do we do that? You’re in PR. You are holding their hand. In my business, I work with extremely conservative organizations, legacy, oil and gas, finance, commercial real estate. I see seas of white people everywhere I go. And I love them and they want to help and they want to be involved. They are terrified. What do you say as a person who’s talking to them about image, how do they balance that proactive energy around doing something with the fear that they’re going to make a misstep or they’re going to stumble in some way?

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s also about the team. It’s about the team, it’s about the intent, it’s about surrounding yourself with the people that are also going to call you out on stuff that you’re not doing. When I say we make it central to the business strategy, we don’t think or talk about it as an afterthought. We go in and we help a client and plan their communications plan for the next year. This is central to the program. We’ve seen CEOs who’ve done it, right and their stock has gone through the roof and we use that as examples. Being diverse and representative of the population you serve, that’s good for business.

But I think that we’ve really gone to the table with a lot of these CEOs and I’ve had some of them look me straight in the face and say, “It’s not my problem.” And then we get to decide if we still want to work with them. We want to help them. But we also need to figure out, is it ever going to get to a place where they’re going to be open to really doing something different? I would say we have to really work with them to show them companies that are doing it right the benefit financially. Sucks but that’s unfortunately, that sometimes proves it to some of them when they see the financial benefits. But then also working with them to have the right people around them that are going to help them do it. Do the work.

KATHRYN FINNEY: The person that says “don’t send that, don’t do that, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, don’t do that,” you need those people around you.

DENISE HAMILTON: Definitely. And that’s part of the problem. They don’t have diversity in their leadership and their comms teams and their human resources teams. They don’t have the people around that can say, “wait a minute.” And they don’t empower them necessarily to speak up. As we think about the difference between PR and actual DEI, Jennifer, I want to kick this question to you. There are, to me, in my estimation, there are two big buckets of DEI activities. There’s the programmatic stuff, the ERGs and the presentations and the speakers and the books and the things and the things. Then there’s this ugly stuff over here. It’s the fact that every organization has a bottom 10%. If you don’t have a strategy to address that bottom 10%, that’s what your company organization is known about. That’s how you end up on Glassdoor with all kinds of hate mail. Right?

And now I’m starting to see people. We’ve done this stuff. We did this big bucket of PR-ish diversity theater-ish, but still important, still good. But now that we’re getting to the ugly crusty stuff where people have to give stuff up, there’s more resistance. What are you seeing in your work with your company?

JENNIFER BROWN: There is an argument to say, “look, the train is leaving the station. Change is here. The world is changing. Our customers are changing.” I think that one person that writes the angry email about Pride and the rainbow flag outside of the headquarters, today, I don’t know about your experience, but they get taken all the way to the CEO for a little chat because most of the companies get it that this is important. They’re not flagging in terms of their commitment.

I think that 10%, I almost wouldn’t put my energy to it because the 90% is what we want to really foster and encourage and equip because it’s a bell curve. I don’t know if I want to focus on the bottom 10. I want to focus on that middle that I can move. I think if we obsess too much about the outliers that are pushing back, the conversation that can be had is that our world is changing. And we need to reflect that world internally. The whole concept that this is premised on is that we need to mirror our world so that we can create the best products and services for them. They are changing. And therefore we need to. If our leadership doesn’t look like them, then we have a problem. We’ve got groupthink. We have homogeneity. We have those blind spots that are going to be a problem.

And then I think the fear and the resistance is throughout the organization. If we’re human, we’re biased. Each one of us. Even I look at this all day long and my biases pop up too. But I think that, like I said earlier, how do we hold people accountable? But I don’t just want to measure. What gets measured gets done. How do we awaken the will in people to see that “this is actually good for me as a leader and a manager to figure out how to get the most out of a diverse global team that doesn’t look like me”? I cannot imagine a more important skillset to become viable as a leader going forward in the future. Sometimes I speak to leaders and I present it in that way to say, “this is future proofing yourself. This is no less than. This is not somebody else’s job. This is your job. If you aren’t good at this, you’re never going to be able to pivot into the future and meet the moment and meet your team and engender that trust.”

It’s hard because you’ll hear us on this panel argue like 15 different ways because we’ve had to get so good at, I feel like, cajoling and convincing, and I’m really tired of it. I don’t know what you all think, but I’m glad that we’ve transitioned to the how, from the why conversation, why is this important? I think we’re starting to roll up our sleeves and figure out the how, but I like to think of not giving up power, but sharing power and extending power.

Listen, privilege is something that has been a bad word. And I like to say, look, I want to talk about my privilege. I want all of us to talk about our privileges. Who can we lift up? What door can we open? Privilege is available for all of us to utilize. And it doesn’t need to be this heavy shameful thing. When I’m like, “well, what can I do, Jennifer?” I’m like, “who do you know? what kind of social professional capital can you be sharing? And where can you be influencing? Because people will listen to you. They will listen to you because they look like you.” And I think this is available to all of us. And, and I think if we could enlist that and get it going, change will happen more quickly and more holistically.

DENISE HAMILTON: I think so too. But I also think you’ve got to fire toxic superstars. You’ve got to fire the people that are toxic in your organization. I think we’re down to that point where “Bill is a little shaky, but he brings in a million a year.” And so we all work around Bill and we navigate around… We’ve all seen that. And I know you’re seeing that in your world, in the VC space of, are we seeing actual change? Are the numbers of investment going up? Are the deals happening? Is the deal flow improving? Is this actual tangible change? Or is it theater?

KATHRYN FINNEY: Well, I wonder… Yes and no. I do also wonder if this is more of a generational thing too, because my team is mostly early, I guess, late gen X, millennial, gen Z. And they’re not even thinking about this way. It’s kind of like, I don’t want to work for your company anymore. If it’s that hard for you to get diversity, well then, I have options and I don’t need to work for you. And so I’m seeing a different sort of spin on this.

And I feel like even in our conversation, we’re centering white men way too much in this conversation. And the fact is that it is a tough market out there for employees. For staff, great staff, no matter what their race or diversity is. And if you are having that much difficulty understanding why you need to have inclusion, it’s going to be very hard for you to hire, period, end of discussion because they’re going to want to come work for me, not for you. And I’m very good with that, because I don’t have that problem. I think it’s definitely a generational thing. I think it also starts with the core values of your organization. When we started Genius Guild, yes, we’re a venture fund, but we started with our core values. The first one being be human.

If you talk to anyone in VC, I doubt most VCs have any sort of list of core values, but that was really important for us because it helps us make better investment decisions. It helps us determine who can work within our environment, who do we want to work with, and all of those sort of things. And it helps really guide us. And it actually has become very attractive especially in getting employees. We have a number of employees who are leaving other institutions where they actually make more money that have better brands and bigger brands to come work for us because of that. I would encourage us to rethink, maybe reframe the discussion about particularly those of us who own businesses of like, how are you going to attract the employees you want? And can you attract the employees and the customers that you want with this antiquated mindset? You’re not going to be able to, period, end of discussion.

In terms of the increase in VC, the VC world is very, very interesting post George Floyd. There was a mad rush to invest in particularly companies of color. It was a mad rush because most had not. And they were getting called on by their limited partners, their investors, of… “who are your investments?” And they were looking through portfolios and you’ve had investment firms had been around for 25, 30 years that had never, ever invested in a Black company. You had a number who first hired their first Black person period, either in, not even just in an investment role, even in an admin role, in 2020. All of these things happened. But what’s also interesting is that while there was more investment, the pie got bigger, but the slice stayed the same. In terms of investment in women-led companies last year was only about 2%. The year before that it was 2.2%. It actually went down. So there was more investment overall, but the size, the slice of the pie was still the same.

And so is there change? There are more women check writers, but there are still not a lot. There’s only about 10, 11 Black women who run their own funds. That’s a massive increase because it was like two into 20, but is that enough to make the change that we want to see? I’m hopeful. In our portfolio, we pretty much invest, now it’s shaping up to be mostly in Black women-led companies, all of whom are exceeding expectations, to the point where we are going to release a report that we know we’re going to be challenged on because the returns are phenomenal and it goes against everything everyone thinks you can do, particularly as a Black woman-led startup, but that’s an added burden that I have to assume my fellow VCs don’t put out reports of their returns for the most part, most of them have horrible returns. Seriously. If you look at VC, most of the returns are pretty, pretty shitty.

But because ours so exceed, we have to take on this extra expense, extra burden of putting data out that’s independently verified to show that, look, this is an investment class that you all should be looking at. And that moment should be a movement because that movement makes you money.

DENISE HAMILTON: Making the case, still making the case. [crosstalk 00:31:51]. To that point, Jen, I would like to talk about this idea of when you are working with organizations at different stages of life cycle and you’re thinking about how to infuse inclusion as a value, just like integrity, just like safety, just like any other value that they hold dear, what tactics differ from a legacy organization to a newer organization? How do you think about that?

JENNIFER RISI: We look at the brand and we try to figure out understanding who they are. We’re a very values, mission-driven organization at Sway and all the brands we work with have been very aligned to how we think, because we want to make sure we can help make an impact. We call bullshit when brands are not. We haven’t even existed, I would say, for three years and I’ve fired clients who actually will say one thing behind the door and one thing out in public. You have to be able to be brave enough to call a company on when they’re not following through on what they’re going to say. From my perspective, we give the same type of advice to brands in all different stages.

I would say that we have a bunch of startup clients. We have very established Fortune 500 clients, but a lot of the principles are the same. And we talk to them about inclusion and diversity and equity. One of our clients is even the four As, which is advertising organization that looks at how all agencies are doing. And my biggest fear right now is the fact that we are losing steam. We put out talk about data. They just recently did some recent data, which everyone was all in on an agency level two years ago. And the data we just saw six months ago showed a significant fall off in how much these issues are still being addressed. To your question, I would say, we are sticking true to what needs to be done. Looking at metrics you set at the top from the senior level. Looking at creating a speak-up culture. Anyone seeing anything should be able to be supported and comfortable enough to actually say something. That is very, very important.

We talked about metrics. Obviously that’s still very important, but also being able to just figure out a way to give people an opportunity to suggest new and different things, and a good idea can come from anywhere in the company, not just from the person running it, but I think that we have to be able to have all levels and especially in the world we live in today, that’s how you’re going to attract teams and the people you want is anyone can be able to help change your organization.

DENISE HAMILTON: Absolutely. And I want to kick that to you, Jennifer. Stamina. Folks are running out of gas.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes they are.

DENISE HAMILTON: You’ve seen it. You saw before it was sexy. It got hot and everybody was in it. And now it’s just, I work with probably about over the last two years, 250 different companies, 60% turnover in their DEI staff. Six zero. Because it’s a burnout factory. They put somebody in the position, but they didn’t give them any resources. They didn’t give no budget. [crosstalk 00:34:52] This idea of stamina and staying in the work and what are you advising your clients as you’re encouraging them to re-up? There’s a reinvestment that we need to do.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, there is. We got to keep our foot propped in the door. We got to keep this door open. Keep making the business case, speaking the language that people understand. I like to think of allyship as the big opportunity here, because stamina is a problem because very few of us have been carrying the water for change. We in the ERGs, in the affinity groups, we who are championing ourselves and trying to give a voice to our experience and paying the price for doing so, because by the way, we’re still penalized for speaking up and saying, “here’s what this feels like to be me here.” That’s still very alive and well, sadly. There’s a lot of risk that we take on every day. And then all eyes look to us to solve these organizational problems when we have the least power in the institution defined in a certain way, power defined in a certain way. We certainly have a lot of knowledge power. We have a lot of generational power.

But when we look to those most affected by bias to fix the bias in the system, as we have, as long as I’ve been in the work, there’s something missing in the equation. This is why most of the time I’m trying to activate allyship and solidarity and enlist other people in creative ways to say, “you can step in. And here’s exactly what you need to do to spread the load.” We have to spread the load out because we’re going to burn out and what good are we?

I think of it like a relay race. Ideally I can take a break. I can hand the baton to somebody and know that they’re ready to receive it and run with it. And I can take a break. I can take a moment and say, “somebody is still pushing for change. Even if it isn’t me, because it’s a team. It’s all of us contributing whatever identities we can, whatever privileges we can, et cetera,” but we haven’t achieved that. I think that a lot of us still feel it’s up to us and we are very exhausted. We got our hopes up too. I feel like we’re a little extra exhausted two years in to saying, “I knew this would happen. I knew that it would be, I thought it might be a moment and not a movement.”

And now could we possibly be back to where we were? I hope not, but we have to do DEI in a different way. And I’m not sure what that big shift is going to look like, but I’m putting my hopes in generations. I’m putting my hopes in young people who literally are like, “what do you mean, we have to ha we have to be trained on how to be inclusive?” They don’t even understand that, they don’t get it. Why is this not just like breathing? And then we have leaders who are completely out of step that have not given any mental energy or emotional or personal energy to this. We’ve got this really dangerous dichotomy going on.

DENISE HAMILTON: There’s a phenomenon I’ve seen in my business that I’m not digging at all. You’ll have a 15-member leadership team. And maybe a company will have six ERG groups, the Pride, the Black, the Hispanic you’ll have six groups.

And it’s two members of the leadership team that are the sponsors for every single affinity group. I’ve gone to the CEOs and I’ve said, “that’s not a good look. You did this because you’re trying to communicate support. And you’re communicating exactly the opposite that this is a nice to have. This is a kindness, this is something that a do-gooder does.” And I’ve had three, three different leaders tell me when I suggest to them, “why don’t you spread out the sponsorship among your leadership team?” I’ve had three different leaders say to me, “I can’t trust Jim to have that role.” I’m sorry. You can’t trust a member of your leadership team to be the sponsor of an affinity group, but you can trust them to run a division of people. We’re getting to it now.

We’re seeing the ugliness, we’re seeing the problems. And this, again, remember I told you I’m an optimist. I think this is good because we’re peeling it back and we’re really having to confront some of this. Kathryn, I’ll come to you next and I want to know, we’ve thrown some money at it, maybe in some odd places. Where do we need to be spending money? Where do we need to be investing resources? Where does it need to come from? Who needs to pay? All of that. Talk about the money.

KATHRYN FINNEY: It’s so interesting. I think the short answer is those who have money need to shift money to those who do not. That’s the short, simple answer. The longer answer, I think there’s something really interesting happening. And there is a shift of power going on. And I really do see…younger generations moving, creating the movement. There is a divide. As someone who sits right in between the next group of leaders and the old school, the old heads, it’s really fascinating to see. I think where we can see some shifts happening is in terms of the workforce.

It’s called the great resignation for a reason. People were like, “I don’t have to be in these environments anymore.” I live in Chicago and there’s a really interesting thing that’s happening. A lot of the lower-wage jobs of fast food, retail, are just having the hardest time finding people to staff. Previously, if you were a high school graduate Black young man or woman in Chicago, those were the jobs that was the only path for you to work was to work at one of these jobs. Enter TikTok, enter Snapchat, enter Instagram. Now you’re an influencer. Now you’re able as a micro-influencer to make five, six, a hundred, maybe a thousand dollars a week creating content. You are your own entrepreneur. You don’t have to work at Taco Bell. You don’t have to work at whatever organization standing on your feet with no benefits, making $8 an hour.

DENISE HAMILTON: Fighting with people about masks.

KATHRYN FINNEY: Fighting with people about masks. You don’t have to do that. You actually have become your own boss. It’s been fascinating to see the shift that’s happening, generationally, where people are, “I don’t have to do it.” Now as an investor, where I’m putting my money in, is on them and this new career economy that is growing and emerging and is creating these micro-entrepreneurs who are creating this whole new power shift, shifting power. Now within a two year time period, fast food restaurants were paying something like $7.75 an hour, in like 2019. Guess what they’re paying now in Chicago? $18 to $20, including educational benefits, including healthcare. Because again, “why do I want to work for you when I can do this on my own, be my own boss, make more money, look fly, hang out with my friends? Why would I want to do that?” I think that is really fascinating. And if you’re going to put things and place money, at least as an investor, I’m going to place my money on them and on this new creator economy.

DENISE HAMILTON: I heard that because she’s getting good returns… This is not investment advice.

KATHRYN FINNEY: Do not do that.

DENISE HAMILTON: But she’s getting good return. I think it’s so important to note, we are in what I call, I don’t call it the great resignation. I call it the great renegotiation because everything is up for grabs. Remember I told you I’m an optimist. Everything is up for grabs. Everything is subject to reevaluation, to creativity, to innovation of a new way of approaching things. Jen, in your world, what are you seeing in terms of who’s doing this well? What are the creative ideas? What’s winning? Is anything winning yet? Are we impatient? Do we want it to win after three minutes and we need to give it more time? What are you seeing about the results that folks are getting from the interventions that you’re providing?

JENNIFER RISI: There was one brand that we’re working with right now. They’re called Signet. Signet owns Kay and Jared and Zales. They had one of the worst corporate cultures in America. I can say that because it’s all out there, it’s been in many publications. So I’m not saying anything I shouldn’t. They brought in CEO Gina Drosos, amazing woman, 20-year Proctor and Gamble leader. She came in and basically changed the entire organization. She changed the leadership team to be 65% women. She changed her board to be 55% women and people of color. She’s transformed the marketing efforts to actually be reflective of the people she’s serving. She’s transformed her brands. And the stock has never been better. Jim Kramer literally said that she basically took a job and nobody wanted and changed it and did everything that you could imagine that took it to a place that it is now.

It’s one of the proudest relationships that we’ve had because we’ve been on the journey with her, honestly, since Sway started. Very much when she started, Sway started. We’ve been helping her as her corporate PR agency. We’ve watched not only the investment in tech, of in the investment in realizing how they need to target consumers differently by how they’re doing things and letting people try on jewelry virtually, it’s really cool stuff now. But, more importantly, she has a team in place that actually knows what the people that they’re selling to want.

I’ve been using this example with our other CEO clients who tell me “this doesn’t affect me. This is not my problem.” Even if they don’t verbally say it, I see the cues in the room where they… You see them glaze over. “Oh, she’s talking again. I don’t want to listen to this.” I would say that’s one of the most proud work that we’re doing is for a brand like that because you saw how bad it was. I’m talking bad. And where she took the brand in two years with her team, and she’s the first person to say, “it’s not all about me. It is my team that took us here.” Everything you do, they’re going to do their earnings next week. And she will say all the time, “it is our team that did this,” but I’ve watched the right things be put in place. The team has changed. The metrics have changed. The programs have changed. They’ve even created a foundation to give money to different places. That’s the type of examples that we need to look at hard and see how we need to make changes in other places.

DENISE HAMILTON: Love it. We need a thousand more stories like that. And we need to amplify. Yeah, definitely, clap. We need to amplify the folks that are doing it well, because there are a lot of stories of not so well. We need to flood the zone with the good stories because I do think people are struggling with what are the right steps. And I’m also struck by how serious and how committed. I want to talk a little bit about the fast-slow of it all. “We can’t just change overnight, Denise. We can’t turn on a light switch. Where will it stop?” You haven’t even started yet and you’re already asking where does this stop?

Can you talk to me and anybody who wants to jump in on this, how fast can we go? We’re human beings. Change management is a thing. Is there such a thing as “too fast” in this work?

KATHRYN FINNEY: Well, if you remember, most of us remember March 1st, 2020. Literally I was on the plane and the next week, everything shut down. Literally everything just shut down [crosstalk 00:46:55] fast. And we had to change our entire way of living as a world within like a week time period. We had to refigure things out. We had to figure out how we were going to do meetings. We had to figure out how we’re going to work, how we’re going to get food, all those sort of things. If anything we learned during this pandemic time is that we actually can change very fast. That is possible. When there is a will to do it, it can happen.

The question isn’t whether or not we could do it. The question is how do we maintain the will? I do think there is an urgency with it. There is not a lot of time for us to do it, so we have to do it fast. I don’t think it’s a question. There is going to be another, there has been, more George Floyd incidences, murders that happen. There is going to be another trigger point that comes up. That’s just the world that we live in. We have to start acting fast. It’s not a choice or an option anymore.

DENISE HAMILTON: Jennifer, I’m, I’m curious if you have a different answer because you are the before and after. How fast… Is there such a thing it’s too fast?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, the danger of fast, the business world loves fast and they love speed. But it can be this intellectual exercise and a box-checking exercise, we call it performative allyship. They have to do the right things. And then I really, I want them to understand why they’re doing them too, and that’s the thing that takes longer. My team can come in and give them a checklist of things to do, and they’re like, “okay, got it. We’re going to do it.” But to me the will is what’s so… It’s the art and the science of this work. The science is the metrics. What gets measured gets done. It’s good. It launches change. It puts the infrastructure in place for change. The will is that personal motivation, that what’s here is now in the heart. It’s head and heart and hands.

And it fascinates me because we are humans and I think we can still get in trouble with performative action and hitting our marks and not having any depth to it. Leaders stand up and we can tell the difference between a performative commitment and a real commitment. And we can also tell the difference between “I’m saying the right things, but have I really done my work? Have I really plumbed the depths of my diversity stories?” Because everybody has diversity stories. I think we’re looking to our leaders to be fully embodied in this. And I think we can tell the difference. Patience, I suppose as because one thing, this can happen first. And then I think it deepens as we start to get our “aha” moments, as we start to meet, diversify our network. As we start to meet our first this, our first that. All of that. But I think it’s the gap between, “do I really, does somebody need to give me my talking points or do I know what they are because I have truly studied this and I’ve taken it on board in a meaningful way.” That’s the kind of leader I’d like to see more.

I don’t know if everybody’s following the Disney mess, with Don’t Say Gay. My friends at Disney have been beside themselves. I have held Disney up as an LGBTQ+ pro employer for so long, but they were silent for so long on this. And the CEO just yesterday wrote an apology. The time, we don’t have a lot of time. And so the conundrum that leaders are in is, “I got to act fast because every day I don’t act or I go halfway is a day that I break my relationship with my employees.”


JENNIFER BROWN: I was watching that spool out and I was like, oh.

DENISE HAMILTON: I am here for performative.

JENNIFER BROWN: Give me performance.

DENISE HAMILTON: I don’t care. I don’t care why you come to church, just come in here and get you some Jesus. I don’t care. I really don’t. I am here for the, “well, we’re looking for a Black woman for the job.” Yep. I’m here for it. I am here for all of it because I think that we can be so… We can trap ourselves by waiting for someone’s heart to change. I’m not in charge of your heart. I want to come into this job and have the opportunity to bring my full genius and my full giftedness and all the amazingness of me into this space. And if this is a barrier and it takes even what seems to others as a performative gesture for me to be here, I don’t care, because I know when I get in here, I’m going to be a rock star. I’m about make room. You can’t go fast enough for me. I am on the bobsled running down the mountain because we have so much work to do. There’s so much.

And I think you can’t iterate in your head. Some of this does require reconciliation and “oh, how do we change this?” And “how do you make that different?”… But you can’t do that in your head. You got to do it in the actual lab of the world and of work. There is this energy of slow down, speed up, slow down, speed up that I think is a really fascinating dance. I actually want to kick another question to you about… Let’s talk about intersectionality. Because if we are barely getting some of this, we are trapped right now, I think, in a Black-white dichotomy that complicates this conversation because I think there’s so many different variables we need to be talking about how are we handling? How are we doing with the intersectionality piece?

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for asking about that. So important. So Kimberlé, Dr. Crenshaw, talked about intersectionality back in the eighties, super ahead of her time, and originally studying the impact of being Black and a woman, and the overlapping impact of that. That’s the definition of intersectionality. It’s the overlapping impact of stigmatized identities, for lack of a better word. I’m LGBTQ, I’m female. Those are two intersections for me that impact me. And then my privileges are other pieces that I have access to. But I think it’s not… Identities are never binaries. They’re never single identities. We are not a single story. And I teach this iceberg metaphor where the top… Above the water line is 10%, 90% is below. There’s so much going on below the water line that we are not bringing to work: mental health, caregiving, being a single parent, having been formerly incarcerated.

There’s so many pieces to all of us. And I like to now… I think the pandemic helped us elevate diversity dimensions, like family, like caregiving, like parenting, like mental health, like grief and loss and chronic illness and abilities and neurodiversity. There’s such richness that we aren’t talking about that inhabits our workforce. And we are so many things, both visible and invisible, so we’ve got to get good at being able to hold all of this. And you’re right. It’s so far beyond race and gender and this stuff is real, so how do we resource? What we don’t know can hurt us about our workforce? They will leave. They’re already one foot out the door.

I think for managers and leaders, we have to get extremely good. We have to go first and lower that water line of the iceberg and bring our full selves to work, which is hard for some leaders. They don’t get it. They don’t know what that even means, but then we have to be relentless in learning about what is getting in the way for our people from an identity perspective. Remember, there’s inherited diversity and there’s acquired diversity. I think we’re starting to have the acquired diversity conversation too, which is family and religion and all kinds of things that happen to us in our lives. We’re beginning to have a more accurate conversation about all the dimensions that really play a role. I love it. I’m so here for that, because we’ve all struggled. And if we don’t name it, educate around it, resource it, support it and fix it, we’re going to continue to bleed people out of these workplaces.

DENISE HAMILTON: It’s such an important, essential conversation and it makes me so nervous because I always worry. I feel, and this is my bias, I feel like anti-Blackness is so central. It’s so defining. It’s so threatening, physically threatening, emotionally, it’s so threatening that it feels so urgent that I worry about the diffusion of the discussion of like, now we’re talking about diversity of thought. No, I’m talking about, about diversity of diversity. I want to see some Black people in there. I want to see some Latinx people in there. I think it’s such an interesting conversation and moving away from anybody being in the middle and being able to talk about difference as a whole and how we navigate it, normalizing that conversation is so important. But I just want to give voice to how hard it can be sometimes [crosstalk 00:56:13].

KATHRYN FINNEY: I would say, as someone who is visibly intersectional, one of the challenges that I often have is the number of times people would ask me, “which do you identify with more, being a woman or being Black?” I’ve been asked that a number of times. I’m like, “well, both because I walk through the world as a Black woman, not as a Black and then a woman or a woman then Black.” I think one of our challenges we have particularly here in America is that we haven’t dealt with our original sins. We haven’t dealt with slavery. We haven’t dealt with the genocide of our native Indigenous populations. We haven’t ever really dealt with it. And as a result, as we have these other identities that are challenging as well, we have difficulty dealing with them. But until we deal with our original ones, until we can get a grasp and a language about how to deal with them and move forward on them, every additional identity, we’re going to have a challenge with.

The increase in Asian hate. That is a real challenge. A great basis of that is also the original hate of African American populations here. We can’t deal with these other things until we go back and we have a real discussion with ourselves about what has happened, how do we move forward, create language to move forward, to be able to solve those sort of original sins, that is what’s going to help us do all these other things as well.

DENISE HAMILTON: I couldn’t agree more. We have dabbled in this conversation. We’ve danced around the topic of metrics and we only have a little bit of time left. I want to tell you my struggle with metrics and I want y’all to hit me back because I know you’re really smart women. I work a lot, like I said, with oil and gas companies and the corollary that I use is safety. There was a time where you would lose a limb and eye. Every day there was an injury in oil and gas. They just made a decision one day and they just said, “this is unacceptable. It costs us too much money. We have to drill down on safety.” Now, they literally measure number of days since the last incident. It is a zero-tolerance environment for safety violations. That to me is how I think about inclusion and the potential for inclusion. I think that sometimes we try to box it into a measurement that we can easily manage, or we can see progress, but we’re not really doing what matters.

Let me say what I mean. Let’s say I’m going to measure motherhood. We’re going to have five dimensions. You feed me, you give me a bed, use a roof over my head. We pick five dimensions we’re going to measure for, are you a good mother? If you beat your child half to death every night, you’re not a good mother, even if you’re killing it on these five metrics. How do you measure inclusion? How do you measure integrity? How do you measure… How do you measure something that feels so fundamentally like a human value? What are the right things to be looking at?

KATHRYN FINNEY: It’s so interesting you bring that up because oftentimes, at least in the space that I’m in, which is in the startup tech and investment space, the measurement is this all-inclusive diversity bucket. Then when you look at truly the numbers, what they really mean is white women. And when you really drill down to it, so it’s like, “we’re so diverse. We invested in 60% of our companies are diverse companies,” but 98% of that 60% was mostly white women who are of the same social economic class, went to the same schools as them. It’s not actually diverse. It’s just this one group who has this one diverse identity allows us to then say that “we’re good.”

Or it’s mostly men. Maybe it’s Black men, maybe it’s Asian men. “Okay. We did diversity. We’re done,” but it’s not true diversity. And so I think what we have to do is we have to get very intentional about what we’re measuring, very clear of what the metrics are, and then also press companies to really release it. What are we talking about? I remember with tech companies, this was a couple years ago, they said, “yes, we’re increasing diversity.” And then you drill down. It was like 2% of their employees were Black. 1% was Latinx. It was like, “But how is that diverse? Because those two groups are almost 50% of the US population and only 3% of your workforce.” But they were overindexing these other groups and using that to, again, diversity theater, to cover for the fact that they weren’t really investing in diversity.

DENISE HAMILTON: How are you seeing that? Because you’re the storyteller. You’ve got to tell the world how we’re doing. And there’s some magic in there of how we tell the story to your point of how we communicate what we’re actually performing and how much information we actually share. I’d love for you to talk a little bit about that.

JENNIFER RISI: Well, that’s part of what we, that’s what we counsel our clients to do is to the point of “release it.” It’s one thing that you’re going to go do it, but you also have to hold yourself accountable by actually saying you’re going to release it. And that’s a huge part of this because a lot of companies are afraid to show what’s under the hood.

DENISE HAMILTON: Are you seeing them releasing it?

JENNIFER RISI: Some. Again, you talked about before, I agree with you. We have to go fast, but we also need to be consistent. And I think the consistency is going to come by looking at it annually, but measurement’s only part of it too. You have to have all those other softer things where having a speak-up culture and being anyone to feel empowered, to talk about what they’re seeing and not working and challenging the norm and looking at the team. But from our perspective, we really counsel our clients that they need to be out there. They need to be out there. They need to be talking about it. And there’s a lot of them that don’t want to. Some of them are even nonprofits that are supposedly holding these companies accountable. They’re even afraid to do it because they’re the ones getting the money from these companies.

It’s very challenging. It’s not a simple thing that we’re all addressing here with this. These are issues that have existed for a very long time. We’re starting to scratch the surface. I’m optimistic like you, but I’ve also, from the practical side of my day to day, I’ve seen the fall off. I’ve seen the fact that everyone was all in. I got lots of phone calls when certain moments happened. “Can you help us get out there? Can you help us do this?” And now several years later, we’re focusing on different things.

DENISE HAMILTON: What are you seeing, Jennifer?

JENNIFER BROWN: To your question of measuring inclusion, if I could wave my magic wand, I would like every senior leader to be responsible for sponsoring the talent in the organization and that power sharing and raising, in a concrete way, raising up on those advancement slates. Every time we do a talent review, many times it doesn’t come up that we lack several kinds of diversity in the slate and there’s just no accountability.

I love the measurement, but remember inclusion needs to happen, I think before diversity comes and stays. I think of it as the inclusive environment has to be fostered and invested in and then the numbers start to change too. Sometimes I wonder whether we need to reverse some of these in the order that we think about them, prepare at the ground for those seeds to be planted. And the ground to me is organizational culture.

And I would like to measure leaders in a 360-degree instrument on their inclusive leadership skills, not according to themselves, because self reports are not helpful. “I’m great. What do you mean Jennifer? I do great. Look at my organization. I don’t have a pay gap.” We love going in there and just getting the focus group data and doing the survey information and just feeding it back and being like, “you’re not as great as you thought you were.” I love that moment because often, we ask like what catalyzes change, they’re embarrassed. They’re surprised, they’re ashamed. Their competitive spirit is like, “Hmm, I don’t like this.” That’s when we can really start to roll up our sleeves. I’d like to know if I were a leader, I’d want to know from everyone else, especially the different generations, am I an inclusive leader? Why or why not? Tell me what I need to do differently. Better, more, less, start, stop, continue. All those favorite models that we use.

Then according to whom is so important. Perception is reality. And I would want to know, where am I falling down? What do I need to know? What do I need to say differently? What do I need to apologize for? What do I need to hold myself accountable for? Because we’re not going to know what we don’t know. As leaders, it’s all about the follower. We need to be driven by the changes and not the other way around. When we don’t have the answers, we need to go where the answers lie, which is our future workforce. They have it. We need to listen. We need to humble ourselves to the fact that, manage our ego and say, “what got me here won’t get me there.” We are all evolving and we must evolve.

Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at You can also subscribe so that you get notified every time a new episode goes live. Head over there now to read my latest thoughts on diversity, inclusion, and the future of work and discover how we can all be champions of change by bringing our collective voices together and standing up for ourselves and each other.

DOUG FORESTA: You’ve been listening to “The Will to Change: Uncovering True Stories of Diversity and Inclusion,” with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown. Visit Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.