SXSW 2023 or Bust: Responding to the @#$% Happening by Advancing DEIB

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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This episode, originally recorded as a LinkedIn live, features a conversation between Jennifer and Arthur Woods, Rocki Howard and Jim Massey as they discuss this proposed session for SXSW. Jennifer, Arthur, Rocki and Jim discuss why this conversation, why now, and what’s ahead for leaders.

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

JIM MASSEY: Responding to the blankety blank happening, insert bad words, insert overwhelming concepts, like the joint trajectory of what the UN general secretary called the joint suicide mission of humans with the planet changing. There's a lot going on. And so if we stay at the system level, as Rocki was saying, and you can't even get into the business level, it has to come to itself. And that for me is what it's about, the human discussion. And we're all in this together. So there is no, they them. There is no us or others. It's, I want to have this experience.

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 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 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 on to the episode.

Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change. This is Doug Foresta. This episode was originally recorded as a LinkedIn live. And as you'll hear, this is a proposed session for South By Southwest. And you'll hear a call in the episode to vote for this panel. There is a link in the show notes to do that, so go ahead and make sure that you click on that link. But time is of the essence as voting closes on Sunday, August 21st. So make sure to go ahead and click that link and vote before Sunday, the 21st. And now onto the episode.

JENNIFER BROWN: Welcome. Welcome. We're so happy to have you. These are some of my best buddies here. You're in for treat in this next half hour. Yes, we are pitching to South By Southwest. Yes, we need you to vote for us, please? We're going to be sharing the link in chat, and if all of you have never been to South By, it's coming out of the pandemic. I went for the first time last year and it was fewer numbers, but I would expect 2023, barring, I know I shouldn't even say this, barring any further excitement, maybe back to its hugeness, which in the past I've heard is about a hundred thousand people. So taking over Austin, it's really amazing. And I was sharing with these folks who I'll ask to introduce themselves in a moment, the DEI conversation at South By is just a recent phenomenon, as you all can imagine, and really has been gathering steam and we've been finding the community there and we may be invisible, but I think it's growing.

And we had a reception. I don't know if any of you were there that tuned in today, but we had such a good time and people just came out of the woodwork wanting to talk about this in an interdisciplinary way. And that is indeed what is so special about that gathering, that it's just the diversity. So many respects is there and represented and ideas are created. And I think our world of DEI needs some innovation, right? We have been through a tough couple of years and we've been shown so much. And I consider you three to be the kind of people I call and say, "What's up? Are we falling the right levers? Are we thinking big enough? Are we connecting the dots adequately? How can we accelerate this?" Because we know the world needs it, but we've got a lot of sort history. We've got some bias and assumptions about the work. And it needs so much, I think, to be reinvigorated. And so I do turn to all you to inspire me. So you greet the crew, Rocki, let's start with you. I met you on a panel and I just grabbed onto you and I've not let go.

ROCKI HOWARD: For sure. And guess what? If you let go, I'd still be clinging. You won't be able to get rid of me, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Free clinging.

ROCKI HOWARD: Right. And to your point, this is the crew that I come to when I feel the weight of doing this work. And it is important work and it's complex work. And I'm so happy to be here with you all. For the LinkedIn audience. My name is Rocki Howard. I'm the chief people and equity officer at The Mom Project. I'm the host of the Voices Of Diversity podcast. And I identify as she, her, black, Christian, GenX, wife and mom.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay. I love that complete introduction. I'm going to start to add to mine.

ROCKI HOWARD: You know what? That's a whole LinkedIn live by itself, intersectionality, right? And those are just few dimensions of my diversity. So we'll add that to the next LinkedIn live.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. And tell us quickly about The Mom Project.

ROCKI HOWARD: Yes. At The Mom Project, we are on a mission to connect moms at any point in time where they are in their career, right? Moms need flexibility. And we're trying to connect moms with great organizations. And our goal, we're on a mission to create a billion dollars worth of economic opportunity for mom. We have our work labs division, which helps with the data and the research to help companies connect. In fact, maybe I'll share a couple of stats from our latest piece of research, which is all about D and I, and of course we have our Rise Program, which focuses on upskilling women and particularly women of color and moms of color to create that economic opportunity. So I'm so lucky to be able to work for a mission based organization. Because, I personally know what it's like to change the trajectory of your family, because you have the ability to be a working mom.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Oh, so inspiring. That's wonderful. Jim, tell us about you.

JIM MASSEY: Hi. For those I haven't met my name's Jim Massey, and I am white heterosexual, identify he, him, dad, partnered. And I always feel like I need to disclose, I'm in the Washington DC beltway. So don't hold that against me. I'm a good guy, and trying to influence from there. When I'm not seeking adventure, I am the chief sustainability officer for Zai Lab, a global biopharmaceutical startup. And so while there I am focused heavily on trying to lessen the inequalities around health issues, both facing the planet for people.

JENNIFER BROWN: Excellent. We're going to come back to you on the intersection between DEI and sustainability after we hear from Arthur.

ARTHUR WOODS: Oh, it's so good to see you all. This is one of my all time favorite groups, Rocki and Jen, we go way back. And I just saw so much inspiration and joy from you, both. And Jim, I already adore. I've gotten to know recently so excited for this panel. My name's Arthur Woods, my pronouns are he him. I'm member of the LGBTQ community, and co-founder of an organization called Mathison, which builds technology to advance DEI through hiring and through measurement. And recently wrote a book that Jen and Rocki contributed to, I called Hiring For Diversity. And I'm just so excited for this panel. Because, I think in times where we're navigating so much uncertainty, you have to surround yourself with people who really lift you up and who share your values, but also really help you grow, right? And that's, I hope what this conversation is really about is taking what we know is so much change and uncertainty that we're navigating, but really trying to chart a path ahead in this work. And that's what I think every person on this panel is trying to do in their full-time job right now.

JENNIFER BROWN: That's right. That's right.

JIM MASSEY: For sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: Do you all agree with the statement that DEI properly and innovatively done holds the key to addressing so many things that are swirling around us right now? It's so integral and they know that we believe that here, but we are dealing with this assumption that it is side of dusk, that it is nice to have. That it is, I don't even know, beside the point or not as much of a priority. So I wondered how you all view it as literally the tool, the mechanism through which, almost a prism through which to view what is happening right now. And to understand it. Agree, want to elaborate on that?

ROCKI HOWARD: Well, I certainly agree, right? And I think the challenge is that I have this theory. I always have a theory. So let me give you today's theory, right? I think that the challenges, a lot of companies who are trying to do good work in this space are looking at it as a business imperative, right? Which we should be doing, right? We need to understand the importance of it and the systemic problems and the challenges that happen. We need to be thinking about 2044, when there is no no minority and majority culture, and how we prepare for that workforce of the future, because the future is now. We keep talking about when it comes. We're looking at this year when somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million women left the workforce and everybody's calling it the great resignation. I would challenge that it's the great calibration because people who come from different backgrounds are saying, "This current way of working doesn't work for me anymore."

But because we keep thinking about it in a systemic change way, and we keep thinking about it from a business imperative way, my theory is that we miss the human imperative, right? And so Arthur, you know I do this all the time when I talk about diversity as a human imperative, I quote the Mathison 2021 diversity report, right? 50% of people feel that being a person who is historically underrepresented is a disadvantage in even getting a job and then moving through that talent cycle. So, Jen, I think the challenges is we may be seeing it as a business imperative, but we're not quite connecting the business imperative with the human imperative. And once we connect those two, I think that's where the aha moments and this change starts to come in a sustainable way.

JENNIFER BROWN: Beautifully said.

ARTHUR WOODS: I can not agree more with that. And it's such a beautiful point, Rocki, because we responded to the events a couple years ago with these huge organizational commitments and oftentimes kind of procedural changes that didn't sort really trickle down to the core human spirit and empathy of this work. Which is, if we think about the inequities that were designed into today's institutions that have been there since the beginning of time, they were rooted in a lack of empathy from the very beginning, right? So we have to start there if we want to change any of these systems for equity.

And I think something we've all talked about, but I think is really sort of core to where we are today is that the work itself is largely misunderstood. It's almost as though folks have looked through a very small hole in a wall to try and get a glimpse of what needs to change. And they have to look more holistically and get the bigger picture. And so when we're even hearing leaders kind of characterizing the state of the world today and what needs to change in their organizations, they're kind of still looking at this work itself in a very myopic way. So part of, I think why we have to have conversations like this, we have to open up our aperture to get to this sort of core empathy of what we're trying to do, but also to more deeply understand the problem itself.

JENNIFER BROWN: And Jim, you're definitely charting the connection between this and things that are already I think, or have entered the mainstream and are tracked and there's accountability around them. So do you think that's an avenue by which this work is, and it's always been legitimate, but maybe I can use the word like legitimized, centered, made core to business functioning and the world functioning?

JIM MASSEY: Yes. And it's fascinating. Rocki and I were talking, our paths have crossed, but we have never sat together and talked. So this is a treat for me, right? And this is a little frightening because the first thought I had was responding to the blankety blank happening, insert bad words, insert overwhelming concepts, like the joint trajectory of what the UN general secretary called a joint suicide mission of humans with the planet changing. There's a lot going on. And so if we stay at the system level, as Rocki was saying, and can't even get into the business level, it has to come to the self. And that for me is what it's about, the human discussion. And we're all in this together. So, there is no they them. There is no us or others. It's, I want to have this experience. And I think when we start to accept that it can be overwhelming with all the changes we're talking about.

So the insert here, whether it's climate action, climate change, drought in the west. So I'm just sticking on climate. Let's go to the human side of inequalities. And the Mathison study of 2021, I haven't seen, but I pick up 50% of respondents said they're already feeling this. I'm sure the other 50 are also thinking, what's happening with work? The New York Times had that beautiful recent study of analyzing white collar employees. Are they sitting there on their computer going, I think it was two days ago, this article was saying every employee's rethinking and recalibrating. And so I believe business is a human construct through which we have negotiated how we're going to interact with each other, if D, E and I cannot be part of that sustainability conversation, then there's another mission that we are not going to accomplish as a species. So I think it must be in that intersectionality, the humanity of it is rooted in the basis of all the systems we're talking about. So I believe it's right there with us.


ROCKI HOWARD: But Jim, you just brought up a really important point too, and triggered a really important point. You're connecting other initiatives to DEI. And you talked about this kind of dynamic where yes, we've been in a circle, but we haven't sat and talked together. And I really believe that as business leaders, so many of us have been conditioned to come up with a solution in a competitive way, right? I'm going to go here in my silo and I'm going to create the next biggest baddest thing. And I'm going to make millions of dollars and I'm going to be the next billion dollar startup, et cetera. That's how we've been conditioned in this world. But, the dynamics are changing now, right? And we're looking to be more just, and we're looking from a corporate perspective to look at our responsibility and our impact on society. And so I really feel that creates a opportunity for us to come together.

So I'd love to hear what you all think about this. I think it creates this opportunity of collaboration, right? And crowdsourcing solutions. It's one of the things that I value the most about Jennifer and Arthur, and we'll get together in a minute and kind of go, "Okay, what are you thinking? How are you doing this?" There's no, "Oh my gosh, this belongs to JBC, and this belongs to Mathison, and this belongs to The Mom Project." We're all collectively saying that if we are really going to move the needle, one of those great euphemisms we're all using on DEI, we can't do it in a silo and we can't do it individually. We have to be able to come together in this convergence and in the spirit of collaboration to say, "How do we do this? What's working? What's not? How do we pass it along so that we can start to have real societal impact?" Are you all finding the same thing?

ARTHUR WOODS: 100%. Yeah. I mean, I'll just say, it's such a beautiful vision that you have there Rocki, because we can't repeat the same actions and expect to achieve any different results, right? To your point that the work has been siloed. And Jen, you talk about this all the time. The work historically was really sequestered to selected talent function. The DEI leader, poor DEI leader, they're burning out left and under-resourced, under-supported. And we need a new collective action which acknowledges that diversity of thought is going to be how we innovate. But also widespread accountability and ownership that basically says we're all having to be part of this solution moving forward. And to your point, Rocki, all boats rise with the tides. The beautiful thing about this work is when one leader builds greater awareness, that does not create deficit for another leader. That awareness, it creates a ripple effect. It creates catalytic. And that same goes for this body of work in every organization. There's no deficit. There is no scarcity of this work. It's all abundance thinking. That's I think sort of the opportunity here.

JENNIFER BROWN: Agreed. And Jim, I want to ask you, so where do people get stuck thinking that it's scarcity? Thinking that if they share, if open up, if they question, if challenge the way that we've done things, and I know you do this as a personal mission, when you find yourself in these rooms, I hear you. I can envision you challenging both your own beliefs, but doing it out loud as a leader so that people see, so this is what it sounds like and looks like for somebody who identifies as you do and sits in the seat you sit in, to question, to really actively participate in equity work. And I love that you're doing that, but I'm sure that a lot of opinions about you and maybe people avoid. I hope they don't because you're so charming too. You're just like [inaudible 00:19:18], come on. I can't deny you anything. But I'm sure you've met with certain folks that think you're from another planet and they have no idea how you got religion on this stuff.

JIM MASSEY: Yeah, It's a tough one. And I'll get very personal here, right? And this would be the first time I'm talking about it, and so my words may not be right. I think Rocki, you mentioned this. We were raised in a competitive environment, so it was win or lose. That's scarcity. And so my career was built on winning, and when I lost it was lick my wounds, come back and get into that fight. And so to break that paradigm is significant. And the work I've chosen, ironically enough is in corporate America, a softer skill, that I have been actually told they weren't looking for me. And so they were looking to have others who represented different organizations when they were going to fill these positions. So I often found myself trumped, sometimes thinking, wait, there's scarcity.

And it's like, hold up buddy. There is not. There's someone equally qualified or more qualified than you, who's going to fill that seat. And so make sure, always follow up. And I try, when I know a position, I was not the optimal candidate for, I tried to network and let them know I'm there cheering them on and be part of their network. And then I'm going to look for the next green pasture, because there's plenty. But I always fall back into that initial piece of, oh, if it wasn't me, then it must be a scarcity thing. And it's the way we were conditioned.

So the only thing I'm going to say, and I'll be brief here is so you all can help me and give me some feedback on the way I position that. But the other piece that's important is we are at a weird time where the scarcity we're facing is going to go back to that human piece we were talking about. We all have scarcity. I am worried about people in the west having access to drinkable, clean water with the drought that we're experiencing there. That's a scarcity issue. And so how can we make sure that those of us in the west have that. And that's just a very US centric point of you. There's many others around the world who don't have access to drinkable water on a daily basis. And so I keep coming back to environment and human because it's about unleashing both to do what we do best, which is innovate. But, not the traditional way of those like me who've maintained power who are worried about widening the power structure for better solutions. And the vulnerability to say, "Help me, because I don't know," that's where I'm at. I want to solve, but I know I don't have the solutions, so I'm trying to find those who do


ARTHUR WOODS: Well, it's such a powerful posture, Jim, and I have to say that it's been that void of vulnerability. And you're right, we were taught in a very traditional business sense that you need to remain private, sort of maintain control. You need to only communicate strength. You can't communicate weakness. I mean this entire posture that really is still being taught in kind of the common leadership framework and pedagogy is the antithesis of vulnerability. So I just appreciate as an ally, you showing up and having that vulnerability, because really it's what leaders have discovered. And Jen and Rocki talk about this as well, is that is truly the source of power today. That is the seismic shift that's happened in this universe, is that is the source of power. And leaders that discover that are realizing that they can make the ultimate connection.

ROCKI HOWARD: Well, and it is a surrender of something. I believe you can use your privilege and your powers for good. Or you can just want to hold onto that privilege, right? And Jen, I think in how to be an inclusive leader, which I rarely have a conversation without talking about the book because it impacted me so much. We talk about the power of vulnerability as leaders. But part of that is, Jim, exactly what you talked about. The non-sensitive way to put that, and the real conversation is, are people with privilege going to have the courage to make space at the table for others at the sacrifice of their own privilege?

And when we talk about this, let's get really real about this. This is 2022. And if you look at the Fortune 500 CEOs, as just kind of a analogy for what the world looks like, right? 7.9% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women in 2022. And we have been celebrating the two, and we hear this, the two that are black women. We think that this is a great win. And you know what? I celebrate those women who've certainly earned that seat. But, is it not a little bit ridiculous that in 2022, we're celebrating that two black women sit on the Fortune 500, right? There are more CEOs named David or John on the Fortune 500 than there are women. And I know that sounds like some funny just stat to throw out there. But for me it's an analogy of where we're stuck in terms of power and privilege.

And when we think about this in a deeper kind of conversation around DEI, people are demanding more of us. When our candidates are coming forward, when people want to come to work for our companies, they are demanding more than the checkbox of, "Oh, well you said this is interesting to you." Instead of the real true, here's what it looks like from cradle to grave in my career and how I move forward and what this company is going to help me do from not only a diversity perspective. Because, we get stuck at the diversity piece, but now we've got to get to equity, inclusion and belonging, if we truly want to see those numbers change and to see the cultures change, and to see people be able to grow and thrive.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, Rocki. You have to bring this to South By, just to bring it back. All the different disciplines that show up to South By is another kind of diversity. But I believe that the organization we're having needs to be had in every single one of those domains. And I think we have an opportunity to do that. Everybody, I just want to remind you, the link is in the chat to vote for us. The voting is closing on Sunday night, I think we said?




JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. So please everybody that's tuning in, you do need to log in and create a profile in South By, but then you can vote for us, please go and look at the link. But really we need to bring this message there at a place where until five years ago or so, there were no panels on this topic, and now everybody's hungry for it. And these are the right leaders amongst us. And then we only represent so many more amazing souls that should be there and could be there of course. But to tell, especially the people who are striving to build their careers at a place like South By, wondering how they're going to be the lone voice in their little startup and the lone voice in their industry.

So when I was there, I remember lots of people flocking to this conversation to say, "How do I use my voice? How do I find a mentor [inaudible 00:27:20]? How do I, like Arthur has done, build a startup, but make sure we're setting it right from the beginning?" Rocki, there's so many examples I could think of for you and what you represent. So everybody, I want you to help us get there. And this is very, very democratic process. It is popular opinion, so we do need your votes. But I just want to say, I appreciate the three of you. This would be a blast. We would have so much fun-

ARTHUR WOODS: Yeah, selfishly, we just want to keep this conversation going, right? So that's a core reason for us to do it. Not to mention, bring the conversation to every corner, right?


ROCKI HOWARD: Well, but I think people love to be a fly on the wall to these real conversations. So to our friends out on LinkedIn, if you want to hear the real conversation around this topic, please, please, please vote for us? Help us facilitate this conversation in real time.

JIM MASSEY: And can I ask one request? If you vote us in, we also want to hear from you on topics and other avenues that we could bring with us, because you're going to come with us.

ARTHUR WOODS: Yes. What are your curiosities? What are your concerns? What are you excited about? Again, a lot of abundance there in terms of what we have to be looking forward to in the future as well, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: There's so much opportunity. So everybody, if you need to, or you want to send us those questions, things for us to kick around, it's and I'll disseminate it to the group. If you can, and you have the means and the availability, think about attending the conference, it's mind blowing. And then come find us and hang with us. Because one thing I know, it's like Rocki, you were saying, the community that does this work is so strong. It doesn't operate in the same way. I've heard it referred to as co-opetition. We raise each other, and yet we also know that we lift as we climb in this work. And I just find that so, it's the only way I could ever be in the business world is finding this niche where we can be this way, that we know we're influencing an entire system. And, that we're only as strong as the chain that we build between each other.

And so I want everybody listening to know you're never alone. You might feel alone, but you've got us. You've got a huge community now, bigger than ever, of change agents who are literally trying to crack the code for this and need to, because it is the future. So, thank you each one of you. I don't want to keep you any longer. I know we have busy afternoons. Any parting words? What would you like to say?

ROCKI HOWARD: Cast your vote.

ARTHUR WOODS: Oh my gosh. Yes. And I appreciate you all so much. This is just such a wonderful group of people.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, totally. Thank you so much each one of you for the work you do. And yeah, please, everybody stay in touch with us. I'm sure these folks would all welcome your reach outs on LinkedIn. Don't be a stranger. Connect in for your own mental and emotional health because the work is hard, but that is the most amazing work in the world, I think. So, thanks everybody. Thank you.


 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.