This episode was originally recorded on the Leading with Empathy and Allyship podcast with host Melinda Briana Epler.
In the episode Jennifer and Rohit Bhargava, discuss their new book Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World. Jennifer and Rohit share their personal experiences and perspectives on creating a more inclusive world; present key learnings from their book on storytelling, retail, and leadership; and reveal their own educational moments from writing the book and how those moments helped them grow as allies.
To order your copy of Beyond Diversity, or get the audiobook or ebook, visit: https://www.nonobviousdiversity.com/
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
ROHIT BHARGAVA: One of the big audiences we were writing for was the people who aren’t doing this every day, the people who are not DEI professionals, the people who are in college taking the one diversity course that they will take in their four years at college and wanting to give them a background in why this exists as a topic and why it matters. And more than why it matters for moral reasons, why it matters because it can make you better, it can make the company that you work for better. I mean, there’s a real business impact behind this too. So we didn’t want to just go for, “This is how you should believe because the world should be more equitable.” I mean, we believe that and I think that’s true. And I think a lot of people believe that, but we wanted to go beyond the morality of the argument to actually talk about the real impact of it too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Why do we struggle so much to change and with change? Because we are living in this VUCA world, volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. We are unmoored from so much that was familiar and comfortable and we know deep down and we may be in denial about this, that the change is permanent. What got us here, won’t get us there. What we’ve leaned on, what has worked for us somehow no longer resonates or feels like enough. It’s time for wholesale change, and it starts with each of us. We have been shown over and over, especially these past few years that there is so much we haven’t known or explored or prioritized in terms of our own lived experiences and those of others. We’ve been shown that the workplace like so many of our other systems was never built by and for many of us on the margins.
This has caused widespread trauma and loss of human potential and we could never, and cannot now let this continue. We all have a once in a lifetime opportunity to address it and change it for good. This means move moving forward without answers, painstakingly, and with great care writing a new script every day. We must become students again, humbling ourselves to the pace and complexity of change, acknowledging the overwhelm of it and talk about our journey. Lead from that place with empathy, grace, kindness, and openness. This is what will resonate. We have what we need, if we pull from these sources. The one thing I know about this audience is that we want to evolve and accelerate. We want to transform and enable the transformation of others. We want and need our systems, organizations, communities, families, to transform too. And we believe we can be agents of change, which is not just about the skills, but the will to do so, hence the will to change. Let’s accelerate our evolution together.
DOUG FORESTA: The Will To Change is hosted by Jennifer Brown. Jennifer is an award-winning entrepreneur, a dynamic speaker, bestselling author and leadership expert on how organizations must evolve their cultures towards a new more inclusive workplace reality. She’s a passionate inclusion and equity advocate committed to helping leaders foster healthier and therefore more productive workplaces, ultimately driving innovation and business results, informed by nearly two decades of consulting for fortune 500 companies. She and her team advise 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. This episode was originally recorded as part of the Leading with Empathy and Allyship Podcast hosted by Melinda Briana Epler and in the conversation Melinda interviews, Jennifer Brown and Rohit Bhargava about their new book, Beyond Diversity: 12 Non-Obvious Ways To Build A More Inclusive World. And speaking of the book, you can get the ebook, the audio book, or of course a copy of the book itself, you can go to non-obviousdiversity.com, that’s non-obviousdiversity.com. You can also access 50 hours of content from the Beyond Diversity Summit, all for free. So again, head over to non-obviousdiversity.com. In this conversation that you’re about to hear Jennifer and Rohit share their personal experiences and perspective on creating a more inclusive world, present key learnings from their book on storytelling, retail, and leadership, and reveal their own educational moments from writing the book and how those moments help them grow as allies. All that and more, and now onto the conversation.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Today, we’re talking with Jennifer Brown, founder and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting and Rohit Bhargava, Founder & Chief Trend Curator at Non-Obvious Company. They’re also co-authors of a new book, Beyond Diversity. So hello to you both. How are you?
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Wonderful. Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Really good, thanks Melinda.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Okay. So Jennifer, we have heard from you that there’s a whole episode where Jennifer and I talk deeply episode seven. So go check it out, learn all about her story there. And we’ll also add a link in the show notes. So Rohit, can you tell us a bit about your story since we haven’t heard yours?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Sure. So my story is that I was born in India and I grew up in the US, but I traveled all the time. My dad worked at the World Bank and so I grew up sort of an international kid. I’ve lived in Australia and the Philippines and now I’m back in living in the Washington DC area. I spent most of my career working in the marketing and advertising industry and lately for the last five years plus I’ve been teaching organizations and leaders, how to be more innovative and use what I call, “Non-obvious thinking.” So I come from the world of now innovation and trends.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Awesome. And can you say a bit about what non-obvious thinking means? What does that look like?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, so for me, non-obvious thinking is essentially seeing what everyone else misses and teaching yourself how to be the sort of person that sees those patterns and sees those details. And I think Jennifer and I were talking about this several weeks ago, there’s a huge overlap between the people who are able to do that and the people who are able to appreciate the value of diversity and inclusive teams to have that sort of perspective. So there’s kind of a big overlap between those two things, which I know we’ll talk about today.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: So from a non-obvious perspective, looking at diversity, I think that’s kind of how you ended up with a term beyond diversity, which is the name of your book and also the name of the conference as well. What does beyond diversity mean? What was that thought?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: I love this word beyond, because really what it says to me is that we’re thinking about what’s next and beyond diversity was specifically a book about going beyond the conversation, which has already started and been going for some time around diversity and to talk about real action. And not just real action for society or civilization, but real action for you, for me, for us. What can each of us do to create a more inclusive world? And then how can we collectively impact the organizations that we’re part of, whether it’s where we work or the clubs and groups that we’re part of to enable that to happen for them as well? So that’s what going beyond diversity meant for us.
JENNIFER BROWN: There’s so many diversity elements and dimensions that are not visible to the eye or that we may think we perceive correctly, but are missing the truth. So I also love the question of beyond and, and what is non-obvious as a broader palette of diversity dimensions that we need to be inclusive of when we endeavor to bring our full selves to this world and to be seen and heard and valued. And when we endeavor to speak about what diversity actually means, because a lot of people still assume it means race and gender, and then we sort of tack on sexual orientation and gender identity and tack on disabilities and it’s evolved a bit that I think it needs to evolve a whole lot more and more quickly to speak to all the diversity dimensions that shape our experience and the way the world hears and sees us or not.
And so making the invisible visible is part of how we change the dialogue. And in the book, we tried to make the invisible storyteller with the invisible and visible diversity dimensions visible. It’s centering that and those non-obvious stories that bring those things to light, I think are what powers the book.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. And also we have the book right here everybody.
JENNIFER BROWN: This is what it looks like.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: We love that cover.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: And I think actually do want to talk about the cover really briefly. We have it for those you on YouTube, you can have this benefit. So talk about the artist.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah. So we found an amazing artist. Her name’s [Zaria Shin 00:09:47], she’s a mosaic artist and what she does create these beautiful pieces of art that are usually people faces actually, she has some really iconic versions of individual’s faces. And when we contacted her, we wanted something a little different because this book wasn’t going to have Jennifer or my face on the cover. It’s not about us, it’s about everyone. And so we really gave her the challenge of doing something a little bit outside of her wheelhouse, still using the style that she typically uses. And she came up with something just absolutely wonderful.
And so what you’ll see on the cover is there’s actually five rows of three circles. And so it’s sort of a grid pattern. And Beyond Diversity has exactly the correct number of letters to actually fit into those three letters across five letters down. And the first two letters B and the almost final two letters of diversity I-T, stand out as B it, which was sort of a reminder for us and for anybody who picks up the book that this book is really about you taking action, you being the change that you want to see in the world as the iconic cliche goes.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: And so the book is actually not… I would say it’s a non-obvious way to arrange a diversity book as well. I mean that the chapters are in storytelling and identity in family and culture in education, in retail and the workplace and technology and entrepreneurship leadership government and the future. So can you just say briefly kind of where those chapters came from, how have you composed this book?
JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. Well, we did this massive summit, which was called Beyond Diversity and had over 200 voices pulled together and so much content to curate that it struck us that, “How in the world, are we going to fit this into the pages of a book and choose?” But what came to light again, a non-obvious way of sorting, right? That normally we talk about DEI in terms of identity buckets, if you will. And so we could have sorted it that way, but instead, the powerful, new way we tried to bucket information and stories and storytellers was by domain of life like society, like what are all the areas that touch each of us in all these realms of our life? Education, where we shop, retail, the future, government leadership, the workplace, and that was my specialty area, obviously, but it was so cool as a co-author with Rohit to really have my own mind expanded.
And then think about, “How could we write a book that you could jump into at any point and read something that really, really hits you where you live, like in your everyday life?” Where this is sort of an exciting adventure to investigate, “What do you mean diversity in retail?” I just think a lot of people would look at that quizzically and say, “Well, I don’t know what those have to do with each other.” And the juxtaposition that way that we’re challenging the reader to in every moment of our lives and all these services we access in the communities that we’re a part of, I’m hoping that it takes it out of the realm… Melinda, we’ve talked about this, out of the realm of agree, disagree. That binary we get into, that struggle, that polarization and where some of us are for this and some of us are against this.
It takes it out of that and it says, “Here’s how it weaves like a thread through the fabric of each of our lives.” And my hope is it presents it in such a digestible, concise and entertaining way and new way that it becomes kind of hard to disagree with it because how do you disagree with something that’s like the water in the air around us? I think of it these days as such a great starter book, like such a good foundation before perhaps people get to your book and my book, which is a bit like a bit, a little more of an advanced application, but it lays a groundwork to say, “Hey, this is happening everywhere and it’s not happening to you, it’s happening for us.”
And these are all the ways that you where you live, like Rohit said, “Be it,” we end each chapter with very concrete actions that anyone of any, any identity in any scenario, any environment, any ecosystem can do. So I was really excited about sorting it that way. And I think also Rohit, I’ll let you make this point about how it kind of juxtaposes different storytellers in a really unique way too, given the structure we chose.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah. It does use a lot of voices. And you mentioned the summit, which was a huge catalyst for this, not only in the inspiration of it, but also in the voices that we wanted to include. And both Jennifer and I really take to heart our roles as storytellers much more than kind of researchers or academics. And so when you pick up this book, what you’ll read are lots of stories with themes behind them that give us lessons for how to live and the world that we could create if we were to invest our time and energy to do that. And I think that that just makes for a much more interesting read, because one of the big audiences we were writing for was the people who aren’t doing this every day, the people who are not de of professionals, the people who are in college taking the one diversity course that they will take in their four years at college and wanting to give them a background in why this exists as a topic and why it matters.
And more than why it matters for moral reasons, why it matters because it can make you better, it can make the company that you work for better. I mean, there’s a real business impact behind this too. So we didn’t want to just go for, “This is how you should believe because the world should be more equitable.” I mean, we believe that and I think that’s true. And I think a lot of people believe that, but we wanted to go beyond the morality of the argument to actually talk about the real impact of it too.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Let’s get to some specifics about a couple of different chapters here and what you learned. Many of you listeners know storytelling is dear and dear to my heart as a former documentary filmmaker. And I believe that storytelling really does change the world and we change hearts and minds through stories. And so it’s a through line throughout the book, but also the first chapter of the book as well. So what did you learn? What are some of the kind of key learnings around storytelling that you brought out in the book?
JENNIFER BROWN: We want storytellers to find other storytellers like through giving visibility to the most fascinating, non obvious courageous lives that are being lived and to be able to platform that and to start with that. I think Rohit, it was like you just said, we’re not academics, we’re storytellers. We believe in storytelling as powerful to change the world, just like you, Melinda. So I think that we are proud of starting there and our own stories play a role too. Like I start with my story of having lost my voice as an opera singer and fighting to get it back, but then learning that I needed to use it in a different way. And then learning that I needed to in my DEI work to give voice to the voiceless and having full circle moment of, “What was I actually put here to do, and how did it start, what was the Genesis of it?”
But then the twists and turns as they go and how do they get the courage then to step forward and share all of that? So we were blessed on the summit with so many courageous innovators. So we wanted to unpack in that chapter sort of what makes stories so powerful, what are some examples of powerful non-obvious storytellers and how can also we celebrate that people can be this and that? It’s also, I think, demonstrating intersectionality and making that very real. It’s another concept Melinda, you and I probably spend a lot of time explaining, right? And I think we will continue to do so, but it’s such a powerful, no one is a single story either.
And I’ve been fascinated with my non-obvious of being LGBTQ and making that obvious and actually utilizing it as a source of power as a change agent. So I think that’s been so profound for me. It’s how I start every talk I give, is my personal story. It’s the way that I get into hearts and minds and kind of open that door and prop my foot in the door and I don’t let it close and make sure that I’m heard. And that was just such an honor to be able to start that way with the book. But Rohit, I’d love to hear what it meant for you and maybe your favorite part from the chapter too.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: To me, as somebody who spent most of his career in marketing, stories are a form of persuasion. And that can be a good thing because they can teach us about new ways of seeing the world and it can also be a negative thing because we see people in certain ways based on how they’re depicted in the stories that we consume, whether it’s through books or films or TV and storytelling has both of those things. And so we didn’t want to shy away from that, but we wanted to talk about, “Well, what does that mean to not just consume different stories as consumers of media and entertainment, but to give the mic or the camera to storytellers who previously haven’t had a chance to have it, and what stories would they tell if they could speak for themselves instead of having someone else depict them in a certain way?” And I think storytelling has all of that, which is why not only we wanted to explore it as a chapter, but why it’s the first chapter.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. I was looking more at our allyship study recently and looked at our data and realized that 70% of the people who responded said that people first learned about the need for allyship through a story, whether that’s a story from learning about their colleague’s experience, somebody in their family’s experience, friends, even strangers that, that was their first aha moment was hearing about somebody else’s story with an experience with microaggressions, with discrimination. Yeah. So really does the power of us telling our stories, like you said, Jennifer, and also consuming stories. And the stories that we tell are so important.
Jennifer, you also mentioned the retail chapter and while this show is about workplace empathy and allyship and diversity, equity and inclusion, I think it’s important that when we walk out the doors of our offices, whether that’s a virtual door or physical door or personal space or workplace, when we walk out that door, that we’re still holding true to our values around diversity, around empathy, inclusion, allyship as well. And we’re also going into the holidays for many people, so let’s talk about retail a little bit. What did you find there, what are some themes that people might take into their next retail experience?
JENNIFER BROWN: We do talk a bit about supplier diversity and then Rohit I’ll kick over to you. But as a diverse supplier, we’re designated as a woman owned and LGBT owned business and the choices, however small that we all make, because every day we procure a service, right? We buy something, we make those choices and the research is more and more available about how to patronize strategically and really those choices and the difference that they make. And so for me, as someone who sells to larger organizations as a vendor, their choice to support us means that they are furthering the economy of founders that look like me and you and Rohit. They’re also encouraging the innovation that we bring because we solve problems differently because of our lens of identity, both obvious and non-obvious and our lived experience.
And so I get to include a little bit about that which is a passion of mine, because I believe that it’s such a great equalizer. It’s so powerful where we spend our dollars and we have so much choice in that. And if our strategy just like in the workplace, which I’m sure we’ll talk about. If our strategy is to like true up economic opportunity. In the workplace, the opportunities to true up the talent, the composition of our talent so that reflects the world that we do business in, that’s what needs to happen and we’re woefully behind on that. But what if our spending were to mirror our priorities and the way that we want the world to be more balanced?
And so I loved being able to write about that and bring that concept because it feels like such niche concept, but really every dollar we make a choice about, we have the opportunity to make a different choice and to share our choices so that we can educate more others about the fact that this is true economic change that we’re creating when we make those choices. So that was one thing I was excited about. Rohit what would you like to share?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: This chapter in particular, the retail chapter is a great example of how we could take one element and explore multiple dimensions of it because the consumption side of it, which Jennifer was talking about is huge in terms of how we decide to spend our money and the statement we make by spending our money with some vendors or in some places is versus others. The flip side of that is the actual making of the stuff itself and what role innovation plays and what role having a more diverse team plays in the products that you even create in the first place and who they’re created for and who they’re marketed to.
And so we have so many powerful examples from an eyeglasses company that started making glasses for people with wider nose frames that really wasn’t in the market before, because nobody making the glasses had a nose that looked like that. And so they never thought that somebody might want that until finally the team got more diverse and then the products became more diverse. Or you look at all of these motorcycle brands and for decades marketed their motorcycles exclusively to men thinking that only men would want to ride motorcycles. And now for most of those same manufacturers, the fastest growing consumer segment, they have as women riding motorcycles, and they never would’ve thought of that decades ago. And so you think about these-
JENNIFER BROWN: Near and dear to my heart, by the way, I don’t know if you know that, but that’s near and dear to my heart.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: … Okay. See [crosstalk 00:24:31]. I didn’t know that, see that there’s [crosstalk 00:24:36].
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Perfect example.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: There’s proof right there. Exactly that, like we are so traditional sometimes in the way we see who the audience is for something or who would be interested in something that we basically put on blinders for ourselves, and we censor our own perspective and we never look at anything broader than that until we are challenged to do it. And we could challenge ourselves to do it and really great innovative people will constantly do that for themselves. But another way to do it, a highly effective way to do it is to bring more diverse team members into the team who spot those deficiencies and spot those opportunities right away, because it’s just who they are.
And the more diverse and inclusive we can make our teams, the more we can actually bring that type of perspective in. Which is exactly what any company should want to do, because that generates real dollars of benefit. It’s not just something that they could do for show or for PR reasons, which is not a good reason to do this. I mean, you should care deeply about why it matters, but there’s a real impact there too and that was something we found over and over again, and a real message we tried to put forward, not only in the retail chapter, but across the entire book.
JENNIFER BROWN: If I could add Melinda, I wanted to make a plug for retailers that are moving beyond the gender binary in terms of how they structure their stores. Talk about good for the bottom of line, to Rohit’s point of accessing young people in all of their interests and enabling the flow through different toy sections, for example in a way that’s not structured in the binary, it seems so obvious. I think we’re going to look a lot in the back rear view mirror at these two traditional structures and wonder how much we missed and how Byzantine they were, and how they sort of outlived… They were never useful, they were never true. We know this now, we know that gender identity is a continuum. We know that one out of five under 35 year olds identifies as not straight and not cisgender.
So one out of five of everyone under the age of 35, and yet we have a boy sections and girl sections. So I really welcome retailers are in many ways, I think challenging themselves to Rohit’s point about, “How can we speak to this changing because our changing…” It’s not that the customer’s changing, it’s our changing understanding of humans and how they identify. And I just think that’s such an important to me. It’s breathtaking when you see a retailer really embrace this loudly and proudly and know courageously because I’m sure that there is pushback and challenge that comes along with it, but overall they’re going to win the long term. I don’t like the war and the battle wording, but they will prevail because they are ahead of where this whole conversation is going which is that sort of total choice about how I identify, whether or not that’s visible to the external world, the retailer that speaks that language and truly understands that and is willing to structure their stores accordingly, will win.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. I, when we did our… I think it was our second tech conclusion conference years ago, one of our volunteers, well, we have two different fits for shirts and we had this debate, “Do we call them men’s and women’s?” No, we can’t do that. And so we ended up saying, “Well, what is curvy and what is straight fit and how simple is that?” I mean, it’s just things like that. And we just need to rethink just a little bit, just a little tweak and women’s motorcycle clothing as a whole nother thing [crosstalk 00:28:25].
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yeah.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Pink and purple and turquoise, which is fantastic if that’s what you like and not-
JENNIFER BROWN: I smell of business opportunity, Melinda.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: … Oh, there’s so much opportunity in the works. And there’s some great women’s brands that are starting to emerge and the issue is that they need funding. And of course you have that entrepreneurship section too, because it’s all interrelated, right?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: That these women’s motorcycle brands tend to receive less funding and so it’s harder for them to grow. And so that’s all interconnected. There was this another piece that really caught my eye too, the leadership section. So a lot of people know my story because it’s in my TED Talk and I also talk about it quite a bit in my talks is that I hit the glass ceiling and when I was an executive, I hit the glass ceiling, I was in a very non-inclusive workplace, toxic environment. And it’s kind of my awareness moment to leave my job and leave that corporate space to really create change through change catalyst and create a more diverse, equitable and inclusive tech culture in particular. One of the takeaways in that leadership section is that the glass ceiling can’t be replaced with the glass cliff.
And I know what that means, but I think a lot of people don’t what that means. Maybe you could talk about that a bit.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love how language evolves and gets more specific. We could say it’s the pink ceiling or the pink cliff too. I think of LGBTQ people, right? And pink is a big color for the community. So I think what it speaks to is I think we have a clearer understanding of when you reach the rarefied air, if you will, up there, right? As you move we might have solved some issues with promotion and advancement and we’re endeavoring to have a more representative cohort of talent moving up. But maybe you don’t hit a ceiling, but maybe you get put in a role where that role is extremely risky and perilous and you lack the support and the mentorship and sponsorship that most people that would achieve that place would be in a way protected by and supported with.
And so when you are the first and the only to achieve something, the risk of being there and they call it a cliff because you fall, it’s literally succeed or disaster. And this is such a no win proposition because here you are having endeavored to run the gauntlet up the pipeline and you achieve something only to not be supported and only to sort of have to break through, bush walk your way through every single day. And if it’s not something disastrous like a crisis that you’re handed to manage, that nobody has succeeded in managing you get the hardest jobs you get the most perilous work, but you also were doing so with less institutional support and sort of implicit and sort of behind the seam support too, because every first knows how difficult it is. You really, really feel very exposed.
And so I think that our understanding has gotten more mature about what actually happens to derail that successful first, that first that gets through, and then the challenges, you know Melinda, Rohit you might or might not know this, but the penalty then of not succeeding and becoming this image of, “Oh, well we tried that,” or, “We promoted, or we did what we were told to do, but this person didn’t succeed.” There’s so much more to the story than that. Institutions. The reason we’re the first to get to the table that we get to is that institution has never supported anyone to get to where we’ve gone. And so the fatigue is real, the risk is real and it’s terrible and tragic that all of a sudden people would say, “Write this off,” and sort of say, “Well, that strategy didn’t work,” without acknowledging the fact that the workplace wasn’t built by and for so many of us and we weren’t at the table to build that workplace.
And so when we don’t succeed for whatever reason, it’s not a fair assessment of our performance, our potential, our abilities, and worse to get scapegoated. I mean, so anyway, we do go into that in the leadership chapter, which was one of my favorite chapters, obviously [crosstalk 00:33:12].
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. For obvious reasons and non-obvious reasons. And one thing I would say is that it’s not just that it’s the first, it’s also it’s the only because there are many organizations and including the one that I was in, where I was not the first, but I was the only, and it was a series of the onlys over time. And each of us somehow didn’t work out. And so I do think that, that’s an important piece of that too. Is there a particular area that you Rohit, that really hit home for you in the book where you were like, “Wow, this is something that I hadn’t thought of” or, “This is something that was surprising to me,” that very non-obvious thing that just stood out for you?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: The short answer is almost every chapter, something like that. We talked about culture, identity, and family, and that was kind of this set of understanding yourself and understanding the ecosystem of where you live. And a lot of my work like Jennifer has been in companies, in corporations where you talk all the time about leadership or entrepreneurship or innovation. You don’t really talk as much about culture, identity, and family. Those seem like outside of business types of topics. And as you get into DEI focused conversations obviously you do talk about that a little bit more than if you’re just doing innovation work or marketing or storytelling. But for me, the process of researching and writing those chapters was deeply introspective because you can’t write about culture, identity, or family without thinking about your own culture, identity, and family, and how that differs from others.
And one of the things we haven’t really talked about is that this book, it’s not just Jennifer or my perspective, we also had six contributors to the book who were listed on the cover and who were on the back cover, who offered their perspectives as well. And then we had 200 speakers from our summit who were all basically interviews and friends and early people who contributed their perspectives and quotes and things for the book. And then we brought in another eight sensitivity readers to read the book and offer critiques on the writing when we were at a very late stage of writing and then changed things based on their feedback also. So this book really was a village in the sense of lots and lots of different perspectives. And we did that very intentionally because we wanted to create a space where we could hear from perspectives other than our own.
And so I learned a lot personally from that process of going through that, because for me at least, this is my eighth book. So I’m not new to writing books, but this process was the first time that I’d done it this way, with this many people involved. And generally what you hear when it comes to anything, whatever the cliche is, “You don’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, or you don’t want too many people stirring the pie,” or I don’t know what the thing is, but it’s heard often that when you bring in too many perspectives, that’s a bad thing. And in this case with this book, the non-obvious learning we had is that actually it doesn’t have to be a bad thing if you do it in a strategic and thoughtful way.
And I feel like we did that, because it didn’t derail us, it didn’t blow out our timeline by months and months and months, it didn’t force us to throw away 12 chapters that we wrote and start all over again. We didn’t have those types of issues. What it helped us do is refine and get better and better so that ultimately the words that we put down on paper and the way that we talked about the book, whether you pick up the physical book or you listen to the audio book or the e-book, or we soon will have a large print edition of the book also, no matter what version of the book you get, everything has been very thoughtfully put in a certain way. And we reduced, which anybody who’s edited anything knows it gets better if you cut it down, it’s better when it’s shorter. And so we did that process. We considered the-
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: And that’s painful.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: … language that we used. It’s painful, it’s always painful. But afterwards you are much prouder of the result in general. And I think that’s where we ended up, we’re really proud of the result because it has just the right number of words, not too many, not too few. It is very intentional in terms of the capitalization of the words that we used or the terms that we put.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Oh, yes.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: I mean, everything is so considered in this book and we wanted to do that because it’s a book about diversity, it’s a book about inclusive thinking obviously, but also because this is not a book that is going to be dated after six months or a year. This is a book that we wanted people to be able to pick up 10 or 20 years from no and still learn something from.
And when you have as many stories in the book as we did in this book, doing that and featuring people of today, while still trying to write a book that is timely 20 years from now is not an easy thing to think about as a writer. But I feel like we were able to do that. And that’s really meaningful for me because the process of doing that and the journey to get there was something I learned a huge amount from. And hopefully anybody who reads the book will also grow as a result of reading it in that way.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And it seems like that process is something that we can take to writing any book and also to developing any product, any service as well.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, I think so. I think so. I mean, and it’s hard, it’s asking more questions and learning from other perspectives besides your own. That’s the snapshot of what we tried to do in this book. And that is something that I don’t think you need a PhD in diversity if such a thing exists in order to do.
JENNIFER BROWN: And if I could say Melinda, I know a lot about inclusivity readers also known as sensitivity readers, but it was incredible to be able to run our writing through that filter and have really rich discussions about terminology. And the fact that language is changing so quickly, we had to make some hard calls, but then at least we dedicated some space to write about those hard calls and very transparently. For example, capitalizing black, but not capitalizing white. We had a whole, like almost… I mean, I learned so much, we should write a paper on the state of those choices and what they mean [crosstalk 00:39:57].
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Me too. Yeah. I have the same-
JENNIFER BROWN: You know, you know.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: … conversations [crosstalk 00:40:02].
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. And we could have gone either way. We almost could have argued it either way, but in the end I made a call, we made a call to actually capitalize white so that we made sure-
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah, I did the same with my book.
JENNIFER BROWN: … Really?
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah.
JENNIFER BROWN: So that and we researched it and explained why the choice was made. So anyway it’s good to know that we’re on the same page.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: We actually did choose the same path, I think. Yeah, it is a hard one. And I think the key and I did the same is to talk about it and to be open about and honest about it and know that language is going to change. And one thing you both in the introduction talked about some humbling moments for you where you either made mistakes or you found growth opportunities as allies. Would you mind sharing those? I don’t have a lot of time left, but we would love to hear that.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: I had a number of them just as a male working in the worlds that I’ve worked. And I have a little bit, I think of a different perspective because I’ve always, for my entire career worked in an industry that was probably more than 50% female, but a lot of the leadership in marketing and advertising remains male. So leadership is male dominated, but the industry is actually more female dominated. And so that gave me this sort of perspective that I think was a little bit different in how I saw the world. And for me in awakening really came from realizing in a situation as a professional speaker that I had agreed to do an event that had not elevated any female speakers to the role of keynotes. So they had an entirely male roster of keynotes. It wasn’t a mantle because we weren’t all on the panel together, we were all solo speakers, but the effect was kind of the same thing, which is they had lots of men onstage as keynotes. And though they had female speakers, they weren’t keynote speakers.
And it was an event about marketing, which as I said is more than 50% female. And so not that the topic should matter, but that certainly lean more towards having females. And when I said yes to the event, I didn’t know, or particularly care who the other speakers were. And only after realizing that did, I think to myself, “I probably should have asked.” And that to me was an awakening because it’s easy as a solo speaker to deflect responsibility for something like that. I mean, it’s not my event. I didn’t organize it, I didn’t choose the speakers. I’m just a guy who was invited and said, “Yes,” right? And so it’d be relatively easy for me to dismiss any responsibility for that.
And probably I have done that many times in the past without realizing it. And in the process of sort of becoming part of this conversation and writing this book, I realized that, that’s essentially being a bystander and I need to be better than that. And so it forced me to actually have a reckoning with myself to say, “Look, when I say yes to an event, I need to pay more attention to who’s on stage and if it’s not diverse…” And this is not just about women on stage, this is about diversity in every aspect, right? “If it’s not diverse in terms of who they’re inviting to the stage, I need to either create an impact to bring more of those speakers from my own network to that event, or decline to participate.” And the discipline of doing that has actually been really educational for me because it made something that I felt like was not my issue to solve, it became my issue to solve. And that was really an important moment for me in the process of doing this whole thing.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. Jennifer.
JENNIFER BROWN: We all have story is like that. And I have traveled the same path as Rohit has on that front. Mine is a small example, but it’s so powerful. Rohit and I shared the audio book recording duties. And so we split up the chapters and we alternated and the process of taking the time to pronounce names correctly, we have so many storytellers in this book. I think perhaps the old me would have stumbled through how to pronounce names. What I did this time is we literally resourced the researching of pronunciation and we went through and found the person articulating their own name online and phonetically spelled them out and then I practiced them and got them into my ears and did several takes or many takes in some cases to make sure that I was pronouncing it in the way that they pronounce their name.
And this reminds me as you know Melinda, the importance of our names to us, of our pronouns to us, right? How we identify and what it feels like to have somebody skip over that, somebody to make assumptions about what nicknames they want to call us, or are the small choices that are so insignificant to some of us that are so significant to others, I think it’s a real call to action and reminder. And so I just wanted to show what our internal process was like with that and how much I enjoyed that process of listening to the storyteller articulate their in their way, and then trying to do it justice to the extent that I could. And it’s a responsibility that we all have. And so if we need to slow down to go fast, we need to take that moment to understand how people want to be called to inquire, and then to commit it to memory.
Ideally, never needing to ask again and then correcting others if we hear it mispronounced their pronoun, their name, et cetera. This is such an important way to honor people. So it felt really important to me and I will never approach this kind of endeavor again, or moderate a panel the same again, because it of the way that we now have committed to researching this. So I loved that and I loved the audio book. In fact, the audio book is coming out soon. Rohit [crosstalk 00:46:21].
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Oh, it’s out [crosstalk 00:46:23]it’s exactly. Yeah, it’s out.
JENNIFER BROWN: So exciting. So yeah, we’re very thrilled about that.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah. Yeah. And I will say that it takes another step in remote conferences often. So I’ve emceed our own conferences many times. And backstage, we’ll ask somebody to say their name and repeat it for me so that I make sure that I say it on stage. And then we had our virtual conferences and I suddenly found myself, “Wait a minute, there’s no backstage.” And one of the things that I find fascinating is that most people don’t know how to phonetically say it, write their names either. And so we tried that, but that didn’t really work very well. I think that’s something that maybe we could consider in the virtual space is more of teaching each other how to phonetically say, write it down and read it so that we can learn. But I’ve found it really challenging in the virtual space to make sure that I do that.
So as a part of going beyond diversity and then this is a part of the show too, is that we want to make sure that people take action as a result. And so I would ask you both to name one action that you would really like people to take as they come away from listening to this today.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: You mean besides buying the book and reading it?
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah, besides buying the book, but we’ll definitely have a link for that.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Can’t take the marketing guy out of these. I mean… Yeah, I would say that one of the biggest things that has had an impact in my entire career has been to consume media that is not intentionally created for me. And whether that’s a TV show or a movie or a book or a magazine, I advocate this all the time to groups that I go and speak to, to workshops that I do, you have to find new sources of information that are not created with you in mind. And especially today, when we have social media and algorithms, understanding what we like and who we are to a much deeper level than ever before. Social media is really good at serving you up stories that you either agree with or stories that are guaranteed to make you angry and frustrated and not serving you stories that will open your mind or perspective to other things in a positive way.
And so if we’re going to do that, we have to get away from the algorithm. You can’t just go onto Facebook or Twitter or any of these platforms, or even Google, because guess how Google’s algorithm works for any search results? It read what you have in your Gmail, which by the way, is also owned by Google and serves you up a search results that are based on your Gmail. So the search results I get are different from the search results you get.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Yeah, and Netflix and Amazon also have those algorithms, by the way. You have to go behind and go deeper to find some of those movies that aren’t intentionally made for you.
ROHIT BHARGAVA: Yeah, or use or blind browsers or use things that intentionally get you outside of it. Or the secret weapon in a digital world I believe is to read stuff in print. If you pick up a magazine, a physical magazine, it’s the same one, no matter who you are, the magazine. Now it varies a little bit regionally, so you might get slightly different ads depending on where you buy it, but pretty much it’s the same magazine and that doesn’t exist online. I mean, even headlines of stories get changed algorithmically based on who you are and what your platform is that you’re coming to the article with. So you have to intentionally break yourself out of that by consuming media that the algorithm can’t massage.
And it doesn’t require special access, special FBI level clearance to do it. You just have to walk into a Hudson Bookstore in an airport and pick up a magazine that you’d never otherwise pick up. So it’s within our control, but we have to choose to do it. So that to me was the biggest takeaway from this and from all of my other work. And I hope that if people read this book and want to broaden their own perspectives, that this is one of the ways that they can do that.
JENNIFER BROWN: Great point. Thanks Rohit, I love that. I would add, how about we challenge ourselves to think about what is non-obvious about ourselves, about our stories and our journey as storytellers. If I’d never been challenged to give a TED Talk and Melinda you’ve been there. Rohit have you given a TED Talk? I’m sure you have. I’m sure many, many talks, but we all are speakers here. And we all remember that moment when we were afraid to make the non-obvious obvious in front of thousands of people. But that is a crucible moment in our lives when we decide that, “My story’s more powerful being heard and I am being witnessed by others makes me stronger.” And so I might challenge us heading into the holidays especially, which is tricky times when we’re faced with perhaps some loved ones and others in our ecosystem where that disagreement may be there, understanding that what is not obvious about us is actually so common and shared and appreciated in the world, but we tend to play small, we don’t think it’s consequential, we don’t believe in the transformation that is available to us through telling our non-obvious stories.
And so I always encourage… I went through that process too, I thought I didn’t matter. I thought nobody wanted to hear it. I didn’t think it had the power to transform, but do it anyway. We can’t forecast the kinds of change that we may create in the ripple effect that we may never be here to see and we may never know occurs, but the lead of faith that we need to make over and over again is to be more truthful and also to shine a light with our non-obvious identity, shine a light for others who desperately need to see that lighthouse. So I would challenge us to all think about how are we moving along that road because your story matters and what’s not visible has tremendous power to be world changing.
In addition to what is seen and visible about us, there’s so much under our water line as if we are icebergs, that if we were to elevate it, we could create community where there is none and enable people to feel less alone and less isolated. So I just love to kind of come back to that as my magnetic north for the work that I do and we all do together is we’re sort of in many ways, the three of us on the other side of that, because we’re so accustomed to doing it, but I just want to give a shout out to those who are early in the journey.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Awesome. I love it, I love it. Rohit, what is that link where people can find the book?
ROHIT BHARGAVA: It is non-obviousdiversity.com and not only can you find the book there, but the summit that we mentioned, you can watch almost 50 hours of content totally for free straight from that link as well.
MELINDA BRIANA EPLER: Awesome.
JENNIFER BROWN: Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over at jenniferbrownspeaks.com? 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 & Inclusion with Jennifer Brown. If you’ve enjoyed the episode, please subscribe to the podcast in iTunes. To learn more about Jennifer Brown, visit jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
- Influencing the Systems We’re In, with Egon Zehnder's US Head of DEI Dede Orraca-Cecil
- Trust in Action: How Inclusive Leaders Can Create a Better World with Author Jim Massey
- Designing for Identity, with Author Jessica Bantom
- Amplifying Diverse Voices at Hearst Television: ERG Business Impact with Elfi Martinez and Yasmine Osborne
- Meeting the Moment: Navigating DEI Challenges in 2023 and Beyond with Jennifer and JBC's Elfi Martinez