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This recording marks the 200th episode of the Will to Change! In honor of this milestone, H Walker, Chief Diversity Officer for the Boys and Girls Club of America, joins Jennifer for an organic and wide ranging conversation celebrating the themes and work that have made The Will To Change a popular podcast in the DEI space.
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Anybody who’s leading a charge, it is all about, for me anyway, doing it together. It’s necessary, it’s needed. So I have just been filled and the appreciation and the love and the notes that people send us and the gratitude of our guests to be highlighted in the way that they are and the fact that I can actually show these amazing people to thousands of listeners, and that I get to actually step back and let that happen, because it’s very little effort for me. It’s such a perfect… When I try to describe privileges, one of the privileges I think of as platform and some of us have a platform for whatever reason, to share it, to give it, to use it strategically is something Will To Change allows me to do.
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 and 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 onto the episode.
Hello and welcome back to The Will To Change, this is Doug Foresta, and boy, we could not be more excited about our 200th episode of The Will To Change. And in honor of that, Jennifer was joined by H Walker, diversity, equity and inclusion officer for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America for an organic dialogue about the themes and work that have made Will To Change such a popular podcast. It is a wide ranging conversation and H asks Jennifer some questions that she’s never been asked before on The Will To Change. So you’ll hear some things from Jennifer that you’ve never heard before, about her thought and motivation for the podcast, her vision for the future and more.
I’ll just say a little bit about H before we begin this conversation. H joined the Boys & Girls Clubs of America from an extended career with global brands like the Coca-Cola company, IBM, McDonald’s and the United States Postal Service, where he served in numerous organizational culture, leadership development and diversity equity and inclusion, talent and career development roles in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. One note you’ll hear that H and Jennifer really just jump right into the conversation. So you won’t hear a formal intro like you might be used to, but what a conversation it is. And now, welcome to the 200th episode of The Will To Change.
H WALKER: I’m very excited. I think the piece that is most interesting to everyone that has been connected to the podcast, who has been a follower of your brand, has been a client, has been connected to your many social media channels, has been this gravitational pull towards your desire and your soulful will to actually connect to humans and to help us all do better.
Now I’m sort of used to getting a formula, Jennifer. Just give me sort of a checklist of 10 things to do. And I think I learned in the ’80s and ’90s, that wasn’t going to make it when it came to managing employees and leading organizations. So I was really impressed when I finally absorbed the notion that your podcast is called the will. And I said, “I wonder why she didn’t use the way.” And I said, “There is such a difference between the will and the way.” So do you have an explanation? Can you help us understand your interpretation of the difference between the will and the way. And also, why did you use that particular word The Will To Change?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, it probably intrigues me more, H. One of the reasons I got frustrated with consulting myself, even though I run a consulting firm now, but it used to be just me, no team, nobody, is that the way, the how, the tactics, the practices, the execution, it didn’t engage me intellectually, it didn’t engage my creativity and it still doesn’t today. I enjoy plumbing the depths of… The will is the fascinating part of the work for me, because it gets into human behavior, it gets into our motivation. It gets into what’s in our heart, mind, maybe the disconnects in us. Those tensions in us where we can’t summon the will, or we can’t find the will, or we don’t even know what the will looks like that we need to change.
So the way feels that there’s endless thought leadership papers, endless books you can read about the way. I mean, there’s so much advice. It’s overflowing in a way, and it’s rather overwhelming probably. But the will is like this deep personal journey that I also wonder in my own journey, where was the will born in me? When was it awakened in me, and why is it so strong? Why is it this gushing a geyser in me? And how can you and I, those of us who care about this work create, unleash that geyser in others? Something that’s unstoppable, something that has so much power and momentum that it gives us so much to work with, because you cannot accomplish the way without the will. You can do it in a cosmetic superficial way. You can certainly check all your boxes. That to me, the way speaks to give me a checklist, Jennifer.
But you and I know the work is complex on an emotional and psychological level. It’s about personal transformation. And the will is that mysterious human part of change that I just keep coming back to. And I’m amazed at all the different facets of it and how unique each of us is in our wiring, in how we’re created, and then all the different ingredients that we have. Why do we use some and not others? Why do we relate to some and not others? How do we see ourselves vis a vis systems? And where do we feel accountability for ownership of things beyond ourselves? And that’s the question of the will.
H WALKER: Was there a particular episode in your life or an awakening? You seem to have this resolute sense of character, a deep confidence, Jennifer, about who you are, where you come from and what you care about, but most definitely what you deeply believe in. When did that start?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, so super privileged upbringing. I was never exposed to difference of many kinds, most kinds. So when I came out, when I was 22, and I decided to follow my heart and honor what it wanted, and all of a sudden found myself plunged into a community, an identity that I had never really known anything about and that I had been rather judgmental about. I mean, if you think about being outside of LGBTQ plus people and culture, growing up, having no exposure, and you’re a kid, chances are those are the people you make fun of. Those are the people that you think biased thoughts about. And it’s really strange to describe it. I don’t know if that’s true for you, H, but we remember our childhood selves and we weren’t always kind.
Anyway, so parachuting into this community and then realizing you’re a part now of this community, because of the choices you’re making in the people that you love. I think it stirred my sense of justice. It stirred something that had not been aware to me and awakened in me before that. Which was, I need to survive, but this is bigger than me. There is a bigger community that’s in need. And I just took to it. I don’t know how to explain it, the responsibility I felt to now do everything I could to make the world better. But the impetus I suppose, was my own survival. But then, but that doesn’t necessarily make you an activist. You come out and most people continue on their road. But for me, my empathy felt stirred, my responsibility for creating a better path. I thought about young people behind me. And I mean, I found it’s so intolerable to think about me not widening the path. And not just by being, not just by existing, but by doing. I needed to forge something new and different and better.
Well, it starts with maybe our own survival mechanism when we step away from it, we see the bigger potential of what we could do. And then you add in the voice and my stage experience. And then the realization that my voice could be so powerful in such a different way, besides making this big noise that fills a theater, I could make a big noise metaphorically. It’s the same thing, it’s just used for different purpose and maybe the mechanics of it are different. But filling the world with noise about our experience and our identity and why we matter, and what respectful treatment and fair treatment looks like, I was like, “I can do this. I can make a big noise. I know how to do that.” And I’ve done it over and over again with the discipline of a performer, somebody who has heard no in audition after audition, after audition has gotten back up, has been pushing. Has been like, “Hey, give me anything, throw anything at me and I will handle it.”
Also, gave me the toughness that this journey has requires of us as you know, and the resilience of rejection. And ultimately it is the rejection of our message. Isn’t it? I mean, fundamentally, that’s what we’ve shaped around and against, which is it’s the no, it’s the, you don’t matter. It’s the, I don’t want to be… I’m embarrassed or I’m uncomfortable or all those things. I mean, how do you preserve your sense of self when you enter that community because of someone you love and a choice you’ve made and living true to that is sort of a daily threat.
So, anyway, so it was just such a 180 and I never went back. It was just like a portal opened and I was in it. And I found my people. I found a loving community, a community that loved me so deeply. And my very first dollars were ever made with my gay friends who said, “Hey, we’ll take a chance on you. Do you want to come in and do our workshop?” I was so grateful. I just said, “Oh, pay me what you can, but just let me in there. Let me in coach.” You know?
H WALKER: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: So I loved those early days of just being around or 20 years ago when this movement for workplace equality was getting its feet under it and really starting to have strategic conversations with some of the biggest companies in the world. And I got to be on that ground floor of that. And wow, you talk about then realizing that the scope of how you could use your voice is so… To be able to impact multinational companies and push them to change their policies and have them come to you and say, “What should our policy be?” That’s when you sort of step back and you’re like, “Okay, this is going to be fun. And I’m ready for this. I was made for this.”
H WALKER: That is a very interesting statement. Made for this. I had a conversation with a very, very famous preacher. And he was sharing with me that, “Church is big business, H,” He said, “We want every pew filled, we want the parking lot filled, we want the tithe, the basket filled. This is my professional career. I earn a salary. But part of my job is saving souls. How do you measure how many souls you save?” How do you measure, Jennifer, how many people gain the will?
So we know the way to get to them is through a professional business. This is what we do. It’s just what we do. People come to us or we come to them. And yet we are not in any way demystified by the fact that they’re coming to us for something that they cannot find for themselves. I believe a big part of that is this animated force that you materialize with Jennifer Brown Consulting. And they recognize that through your books, through your TED Talk, through your podcasts, through your speaking engagements. But where is that piece that you think, why do people keep coming to you, like that preacher told me, “They keep coming to this church, yet I can’t really measure for them how many souls I’m saving, but I can create the will for them to come.” Why do people come to you?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness. I’m thinking, I’m thinking, I’m thinking. Well, a loving acknowledgement to ourselves. It’s the humanity, the being seen is so important and appreciated and valued for wherever we are in the journey. That just has to be something I always come back to, to say, “I see you trying, I see you ill equipped. I see you fumbling and uncertain or feeling guilt and shame. And I’ve been there.” So it comes from this deep… my story is this deep anchor that I carry with me that I never get very far away from, because I don’t need to, because that’s the energy source that I draw on. And in sharing that vulnerably, others are like, “Okay, so it’s safe to do that. It’s safe to talk about this. It is safe to do what she’s doing and she’s doing it…” It doesn’t come across as an ego exercise, I don’t think. It doesn’t come across as showing off, it doesn’t come across as I fall apart every time. It’s very measured. It’s very calm. It’s very centered.
“And in the storm of what’s happening, the port in the storm, if I can be somebody that makes sense, leaders are sense makers, if I can make sense of the chaos and ground us in something where, for a moment at least in that container, I feel safe, I feel heard, I feel able to learn. I feel I can let my guard down. I feel like I can be me flaws and all. And I can just show up with some of that will, some of that… And the belief I can be better. The belief that I can do what Jennifer’s talking about. This is doable.”
I feel like a lot of people, H, they’re so discouraged about learning about DEI. I don’t know how it shows up, but I’m saying in their hearts, this is my read on it. That we don’t feel competent, we don’t feel able. And the will is tied up with the able. It’s the skill and how difficult it is to learn a new skill. And then the will can get wrapped up in that, which is, “I can’t do this. I want to, but I feel like it’s halting, it’s awkward. I’m unsure, maybe I’m making things worse. I don’t know where I fit. I don’t know how to talk about this. I don’t know how to talk about my background. I didn’t have that lived experience.”
We can call them deflections in a way, but that is all almost too pejorative, but they are deflections in terms of how do I get in? How do I even start? So seeing people’s humanity and acknowledging that in myself too, the humanness I show myself, the kindness I show myself is also an important part of the role modeling, I think, to be patient with ourselves. And to unpack in front of other people, which is the hard part for some of us to say, “Here’s my process. I’ll show you how the sausage is made.” I’ll open that and say, “Hey, you’re not alone.” And I think the extent I can do that, I think people will come and they’ll keep coming. They’ll keep coming because this is a pain point.
I mean, for us as humans, we’re all trying to figure out this moment, where do I belong? Do I matter? What do I have to say or to contribute? Because I believe, I don’t know about you, but I think, H, knowing you, you believe we want to make our contribution. I mean, I think that is just this deep want for humans. And I do think people are good. My partner and I debate that all the time. Opposites attract, so it’s a good exercise for me. But in order to get out of bed every morning, I have to be an optimist and do what I do. I have to believe that people’s heart want more, that they are expansive, that they are capable of so much more than they think they are.
And I know I’ve seen that in my life. I’m capable of much more than I thought I was. I know that it has to be true and I’ve seen it be true for people who’ve transformed and that needed that support, the love, the whatever it is where they learn and how they learn. Somebody to hold space for that, so that it can be that teeny little seedling. The will can start as this tiny, delicate thing. And imagine the protection you need around that to enable it to get its roots in and start to grow and flower and expand. I mean, it is not unlike that, and fostering that is so important to me because I want those seedlings to grow into beautiful trees and into a strong grove. I mean, that’s what we need.
H WALKER: I think what I’m learning from you today as I start to put these puzzle pieces together is, with Jennifer Brown and with Jennifer Brown Consulting, you do have this deep confidence about who you are. We understand what you care about, we understand what you deeply believe in, and you’re very conscious about moments in your life that helped you to understand your purpose. Why am I here? That’s the question that purpose answers.
I would like to talk a little bit about soul and spirit in organizations, and what you have described thus far on your personal journey is leading us into this organizational journey in which we have seen you move mountains with global organizations and executives at the C-suite level. Can you help me understand why a bedrock sense of values and identity is critical? Why is a bedrock sense of values and identity critical in order for me to lead?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, organizations are so complex. They’re made up of people who are at varying degrees of will and skill, like we’ve been talking about. So when people say, “Jennifer, which companies do this great?” I’m like, “I cannot answer that question.” Because there are differences functionally, there are differences in leader to leader in terms of the tone they set, and either fish smells from the head down, as they say, unfortunately, with toxic culture. We see that in our data and we report that back sometimes, which is a fun conversation.
But the bedrock values to me feels that there has to be an alignment and agreement on, it’s almost like ground rules when you talk about that at the opening, what do we really we believe in? What do we believe to be true about DE&I, what do we believe to be true about cultures of belonging? We say, bring your full self to work, but what do we really… When we walk the talk or don’t, what does it really look like in practice and what do we mean? How do we define this? And then if there’s a lack of calibration amongst even senior leaders on some of these key pieces, H, you know that that is like a fly in the ointment. I mean, it’s really a derailer for progress, but it’s an opportunity to calibrate.
I do think that’s why where you start with organizational change is so important with folks who are so critical to that change. You know the rest of the workplace wants it. The will, and I don’t even worry about it. Our young talent is like, “What is up with this workplace thing? This is not what I expected. It’s not what I want. It doesn’t resonate. It’s a foreign to me. I don’t know what they’re saying or not saying or what they care about.” So it’s kind of a mess.
And so getting that bedrock alignment around what this means to me personally, and then if I am one of 12 on a leadership team. Being heard, yes, because we’re all going to be extremely different. Backgrounds, experience, beliefs, conviction, commitment, the will. If I had to put a will on the scale of one to 10. And what you raise is honestly on my wishlist, which is some sort of assessment someday that I would love to build, which captures what your earlier question said, which is where are we generating the will and to what degree is the will present and alive and strong or weak. And how do we perceive that amongst each other, particularly leadership, because I need to know where you’re coming from in order need together, which we have to do. We have to do and we have to present a single voice to organizations.
And yet we aren’t single voices, we’re not. We are learners on every single stage of the path and we’re struggle and we’re awkward about different things. And maybe we have more or less competency with something, but none in other areas. It’s a fallacy to assume that there’s a single voice. And yet the presentation of a organizational commitment, it needs to be with one breath. So there’s all this complexity that I think is not acknowledged behind the scenes, and it’s so important. That’s critical stuff because if you get a misalignment there, then it ripples out as misalignment times 10, times 100 to the rest of the organization. So there’s some work that has to be done there and really candid conversations.
And then how do we bring people into alignment? I mean, okay, so somebody says, “I am just thinking this isn’t a compliance exercise and I’m not into it. I just think that we don’t have the time, we don’t have the resources. It’s not a business priority. There are other things on fire. We can’t spend this, we can’t whatever.” So then I think it’s a question of individual conversations. That’s where I think an external facilitator coach is really helpful to bring into calibration folks and invite them to consider things in a different way to have that aha moment, so they can then join the conversation.
But boy, it’s complex on leadership teams, there’s egos pinging around, there’s all kinds of noise. There’s tons of pressure, there’s lots of scrutiny. There’s lots of public awareness of how we have to show up as competent when we don’t have competence. So fundamentally, sometimes I say to younger folks on calls, I’m like, “I don’t want you to give your leadership a break, but in a way, they are people too and they are wrestling with this moment also. And there’s a process they are undergoing.” And by the way, they need to do it in public, always with every action scrutinized or inaction. They have to learn the language quickly and speak it to thousands of people tomorrow. And they are completely, demographically, the least likely to have been exposed to difference, because we all know what demographic is overrepresented in senior leadership.
So the least proximity, the least exposure. And I think exposure in your life really helps accelerate your journey. I mean, it’s much harder when you don’t have exposure proximity, that you don’t have a circle that represents the world and you don’t have those opportunities. It’s so much more difficult because you’re learning these things in the abstract.
I also think that has something to do with the will, back to your question, because sometimes knowing somebody births the will. When somebody’s vulnerable, that you care about on your team and they’re gender non-binary and they tell you their story and they trust you with that, it can awaken that will. I mean, that’s powerful, more powerful than reading a book or watching something. So I do think these things are kind of tied together. Where does the will come from and where can I help generate it in someone? Or how can I encourage it in somebody who’s already got it, but it’s a seedling? And then how can I utilize those with big, huge trees of will to sort of be that lighthouse in the storm to say, “Hey, I got enough will for an army. Come on and hook your branch to me. [crosstalk 00:27:21] I’m going to stand solid and my roots are deep.”
You are this person, H, in your world. People attach to you because they want to ride alongside you. They want to take advantage in a good way of your strength, of your momentum. And some of us are that, and I mean, it’s really an awesome… I mean, not awesome, great all the time, I mean really profound responsibility when you awaken to that depth of will. I mean, it is that preacher. I mean, it is like I’m responsible for these souls. It’s a lot.
H WALKER: Yes, it is. I would like to go on two different tracks. I will tell you first that I am going to build my first treehouse in the JBC tree. That is my trademark now, but I’ll give it to you, the JBC tree. And I want to see a beautiful diagram of that, but I must have the H house, the H [crosstalk 00:28:24] in my JBC.
JENNIFER BROWN: Your house is going to be the cutest. I’m sorry.
H WALKER: I hope so. So I need to go on two tracks. First, I want to talk about the generation of diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners that are learning how to practice these disciplines within organizations or just for themselves. And then I want to talk about the natural order of will. Meaning, what happens when globally we experience the direct impact and the collateral of a pandemic? When we commemorate this month, the 10th anniversary of Black Lives Matter, where did that will come from? How does will influence us? What must we continue and you to learn from that? So I’m going to come to that in a minute, but I wanted to put that out there.
On this next generation of diversity, equity and inclusion practitioners, if a caller said to you, “Diversity, equity and inclusion? Jennifer, can I just focus on one? Is it okay if I just learn about diversity first and really master that or do I have to do all three? Because everyone keeps saying you own DEI, you have to do DEI, you have to build a DEI strategy and I’m going like, ‘Oh, why?’ When I was reading about all these incredible leaders years ago, they were just chief diversity officers.”
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Remember those days?
H WALKER: “That’s what I want to do.” What would you share with them about their personal journey and practice into diversity, equity and inclusion?
JENNIFER BROWN: I mean, it gets even more than that. I mean, think about all the different identities we also need to understand that aren’t our own, and how that list just continues to expand. It’s a lot. Well, gone are the days when we could just focus in, but it’s good though, because it’s a maturing of our understanding of how the, you said the order. It’s our maturing of our understanding of the different pieces of change. To have one without the other is not a complete picture or a set of ingredients. And we know this.
I would say, we have the capacity, I think, to tackle these pieces as sort of interlocking puzzle pieces that each one drives the other, each one supports the other, if it’s done well. So more language I always love, and I love LGBTQ plus, or the way we’re understanding gender identity in so many different ways beyond the binary. I think that this is a beautiful specificity of the different pieces that we then can develop expertise in and make sure, almost like a checklist for ourselves, that am I seeing this through the D lens, am I seeing it through the E lens, am I seeing through the I lens?
I would add belonging as another lens to see it through. Also, justice is a lens. It’s akin to equity, but it’s not quite, but it’s a word that’s coming up. And some people are actually adding the J to the alphabet soup. Maybe being LGBTQ plus, I’m comfortable with the alphabet soup and so I sort of take these things for granted. But we used to be the gay community, that was it. I mean, the L word wasn’t in [crosstalk 00:32:10].
H WALKER: Yes, yes, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: The trans thing, I’m not sure people in the old days knew what the T stood for, even in the community. We didn’t know.
H WALKER: Or if we knew any trans people, if we even bothered to make sure that we understood, or even why the T was included with LGBTQ. Why is the T in there? So I think the origins of that, and I really appreciate your terminology around maturation, that it is a maturing, it’s an evolving. And that’s what I love about your work. Everything that you publish, every time you speak, I feel like I continue to grow. I like that you continue to position concepts and models as if they are recipes for me to have DEI sustenance. It doesn’t feel like a checklist. It feels like if you have the will, we can do this together. There is an order to how we do this, because there is an outcome and results that we need. Much of that was disrupted. There were many belief statements, Jennifer. The core of this organization happens at these global headquarters. If you’re not in the center of the headquarters, there’s no way we could possibly get our work done.
We are a profitable organization that values everyone. Why are we now finally realizing that black lives matter? So what happened, Jennifer? What would happen to our peaceful, very sort of push the red button in order to get that back in line. That’s the way to do it, just push that button to get it back in line. We’ve been brought up on, if something happens, irreconcilable differences, just put a label on it. All of that was taken away from us, and then you started really pushing for us to understand self assessment around inclusion, pushing us to understand the importance. Which I love the name of your new book, Beyond Diversity. Help me understand how these global events have impacted organizations and how has it either diminished their will in some sense, and in others have really sort of created alternative courses of action.
JENNIFER BROWN: Alternative courses of action. That’s a good way to put it. Whether you like it or not. [crosstalk 00:35:15]
H WALKER: If someone says pivot one more time, I’m literally going to fall off my [crosstalk 00:35:18].
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Thank you. Speaking of language and trying to refresh our language, because honestly it becomes meaningless after a while. I mean, even thank you for saying that I’m trying to make meaning of that evolution and maturity in the pieces and define them in really fresh ways. I actually challenge myself in keynotes these days to not ever say diversity, inclusion, equity. Seriously, because I just know people are like… “There she is again,” or, “There they all are again.” And I don’t want to be written off, that’s not acceptable. I’m not going to blame somebody and externalize the blame for that. I’m going to, and this is just my response, I’m not saying it’s right. But I enjoy the creativity that it requires and the digging deep of saying, “How am I going to talk about this in a way that people are not tuning out?”
And they are overwhelmed. I mean, to your point, the challenges are everywhere. So what was the imperative? What caught fire? This whole conversation is about will. So I think what happened is humans have the will to be heard. We have the will to be seen and to matter, but it has been pushed to the side. It has been dismissed. It has been minimized and ignored. Honestly ignored and irrelevant, seen as irrelevant to the fuel of organizations. That is the most incorrect belief that unfortunately you and I have struggled through in successive diversity, equity and inclusion leadership positions. Encountering people, time and time again, before two years ago that were just dismissive, not understanding the connection. And I always took that on as a challenge. It’s my job to figure out how I’m going to make that connection. I’m going to describe this in a different way that they’ve never heard before, that I’ve never described it before. I’m going to mine every iota of my powers as a storyteller, as a verbal person, as somebody who loves language, has somebody who loves to write, I’m going to just dig deep and figure it out.
But the will to be heard and to make noise, there was room, all of a sudden world stopped dead in its tracks and we saw George Floyd, we saw the protest. We felt like the will was awakened, I think. The will on the streets was powerful. And then I think to be pulled along with that, and want to be a part of it, and feel like I want to respond to that. I think it awakened a whole generation of potential allies. I think it took something, a kernel in all of us of what we share around feeling seen and heard. And those times in our life, regardless of our lived experience and our identity of when we weren’t heard. And the justice piece, the fairness piece was awakened. And then there was room and space and chaos. And sometimes you can be heard in chaos more than you can be heard in the system which is running well. So I do think the disruption was the window of opportunity. And we found the will, we found the voice, we used it. And then we were heard in a different way.
Now, did companies go back to sleep? Are they flagging in their efforts and their energy? Are they going back to status quo? Are they still doing the work when there’s not sort of the bullhorn in the face all the time of truth telling. Maybe, but I think some of them more accurately perceive that change or die. H, I just heard this new acronym today, BIPGM, black indigenous people of the global majority.
H WALKER: Wow.
JENNIFER BROWN: Think about that. This is the majority. So anyone that is not paying attention to that is not scrutinizing the composition of their organization and saying, “Wow, we cannot hope to thrive. We cannot hope to build products and services that delight our customers, which is the foundation. We’re in capitalism whether we like it or not. If you even think that we’re going to skate by or through this, there’s no escape. And your workforce demographic is that majority now. I mean, people ask me, “How do I measure the demographics and what’s the right demographics to have?” And I say, “Does it look like the world? Does it reflect that? That is your benchmark.
It’s the simplest metric I can give. We are far away from that, particularly as we go up in seniority, as you know, there’s a huge delta, or not delta, there’s a gap between the entry talent and senior talent, and something really pernicious is happening in the middle. There’s something very difficult happening. It’s like that hourglass, it’s really, really tight in the middle there. And we are not getting that representative sampling of all the talent that we have available in the world through that hourglass. And we’re basically have leadership that are making huge and consequential decisions, who have the same blind spots that they’ve always had, who have group think, who are in homogeneous groups of decision making.
It has gone from distasteful to dangerous and risky and a business liability. And it always has been, you and I know this, but I think the stakes of how we speak about this need to change. The urgency, the way… Well, look, we have to make meaning out of this one, even for leaders. If they don’t understand the desperation that they should be feeling right now, it’s our job, some of us, to step in and say, how can this story be told in a way that really captures the gravity of it? And that’s my frustration is sort of sitting here, on Zoom with endless presentation saying, how do I communicate the gravity?
And by the way, I’m trying to save souls because honestly, I’m coming for you. I’m coming to get you and pull you forward. I’m here to shine the light from the future to say, “Hey, you’re going to need this. This is something that is going to make the difference between relevance and irrelevance.” And we have, not only the way, but we can talk about the will. I’m open to that. I want to talk about the will. Without the will, I’m not sure we’re going to accomplish the way, so let’s get to it.
H WALKER: Yeah, yeah. This is important. Jennifer, while you are in this particular space, I would love to ask you if you would please, do you give yourself permission to feel? There’s so many board members, chairs, CEOs, investors that are leading. Talk to me about you, have you given yourself permission to cry, to feel angry, to feel in any way that as you’re leading people through that you can still do it by experiencing your humanness?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Well, H, you’re reading the crystal ball of me because I think that’s my next evolution. There’s this, the performance stage with a huge crowd. I go into performer mode and I know what needs to happen, and I know exactly what I need to do and what I need to create. And it’s enough in that forum. But I am triggered, I don’t have a place to put things, especially when I’m in working one on one or in senior teams that are smaller, where we’re really, really getting honest. And I’m encouraging this honest dialogue, particularly about the will. The way conversations I don’t mind, but the will conversations challenge me because they challenge my worthiness. And no matter how much we try to justify that that’s not what’s going on, it isn’t about you, all those lovely slogans, we’re heartbeats, we bleed when we’re cut, we perceive the harm. We either feel the harm or we imagine the harm that’s happening around to any given leader.
I don’t sometimes feel I have room to be that. I want to create more spaces where I get to have the room to feel that. But I don’t know what format that is and it’s a question that I am working on with a couple cherished folks in my life. And let’s keep talking, where do we get to fall apart? Where do we get to be super vulnerable? Where do we get to express our anger and our not feeling seen or heard and the impact on us. And also, our own shame and our own less worthiness as allies. Like when I think about how we torture ourselves, because we’re not doing enough. How we judge ourselves and we hold ourselves to the standard and we turn around and we teach it, but then how we beat ourselves up. So I think my want for humanity, like you said, to bring into the church, I want folks to feel maybe better than I feel. [crosstalk 00:45:38] That what it is?
H WALKER: Well, I think that there’s so oftentimes we have grown up looking up and not seeing us. And the question I have for you is this deep sense of imposter syndrome that I really don’t belong here. I see that I’m here, but I really don’t belong here. What gives me the right to be here? There’s never been anyone like me, how can The Will To Change help me to defeat this imposter syndrome? And what can organizations do at the highest level to make sure that I am truly feeling included and I feel like I belong?
JENNIFER BROWN: Pushing through the imposter syndrome is just to me, the practice of it is seeing it, noticing it, pushing through it, telling it to take a hike, go sit over there. I know you’re never getting out of the car, but you could ride in the back. I’m driving and stepping into that power. And the more you practice it, honestly, I think you get control of that. It still happens, but the power that’s on the other side of imposter syndrome, that’s available to all of us is so profound. The more you feel it, the more you believe it. You just have to set up circumstances where you can feel in your power, really grounded in your story and your lived experience, in your convictions, in what you know to be true and what you want for humanity.
When you come from that, please, it’s just a clear channel and imposter syndrome’s noise. It’s noise. It’s smallness. It’s oh, you don’t belong here, you’re not worthy. You don’t know what you’re talking about. But when you speak from deep truth, it has a wisdom about it. But it’s a practice, this is not magic. So think about it as a discipline, and look for opportunities to access that power and practice what it feels like to speak from a deeply embodied grounded place. It may be silence, it may be less is more, it may be very few words. It may be the energy that you hold in your presence.
So anyway, and then how do we get more organizations that encourage this? Great question. I think acknowledging that so many people are in organizations, feeling imposter syndrome is just like a wet blanket on their power [crosstalk 00:48:12]. If I were coaching and mentoring and I were colleagues with somebody, I’d name it, I’d define it, I’d share how I wrestle with it. I would try to normalize a conversation about how some of us go through our whole lives feeling less than. And how we won’t achieve what we’re capable of. If somebody doesn’t hold space for us to say, “I see you. And I feel this too.” And this is what happens to us when we’re told that we’re less than, we internalize it and then we use it as our operating system. We cannot tolerate that in ourselves.
And we also, it’s a team sport, I think. To be in the LGBTQ community, H, and to hear the message for 20 plus years now, of we matter, we’re amazing. We do all the things, we have every single profession, we look all different ways, we love so many different [crosstalk 00:49:05]. I mean, that took a lot of years to deeply believe and undo the other stuff that you come into this equation with. The less than, the I’m not safe, I’m mistaken. I don’t even know, it works on us and it gets into the fibers of who we are. So the eradication of that is the discipline that I’m talking about, the noticing of the ways that these are threads that are woven into us. How do we create a different fabric? How do we weave something different? And over time, how do we get those threads out and replace them with beautiful truth.
But I think also being marginalized enables us to be truth tellers and powerful beyond measure. I also deeply believe that turning this around and having it be a source of power and certainty and voice, I mean, those are the gifts of the struggle. And so I think we’re all kind of caught probably at various stages in our oppression journey. And by the way, straight white men, there is an oppression story there. There is an oppression of self. There is an oppression of the feminine perhaps. There is an oppression of emotion. There is a conformity to the man box that we talk about a lot on The Will To Change. So this is something that’s true across the board, and let’s not get into the pain Olympics about who is allowed to listen to this right now and be moved by it. It’s available to all of us, it’s needed for all of us. This is healing for all of us.
So I mean, how do we encourage that in organizations? It means having a different conversation globally and being equipped and ready with the vocabulary, with approach. But having it be not dangerous to have those conversations, to have it be something that we consider. Intersectionality asks us to see difference. It asks us to not say, “I don’t see color.” It asks us to say, “I want to acknowledge your experience and what that has created for you. And then I want to know, how can I be right alongside you in your journey of growth given that. What can I do? What can I say? What can I interrupt? How can I use whatever power or privilege I have to shift? Anything you need shifting that I can shift, let’s work together to do that.”
That’s what intersectionality sees. And the organization has not seen people in all of their intersectionality or even has understood what needs to be done to support people differently so that they can blossom. Intersectional approaches support differently. And that is not anything to hide, it’s not anything to deny, it is something to celebrate. And if it makes somebody else over there feel less than because others are being supported differentially, that’s a whole other podcast, H. [crosstalk 00:52:22]
H WALKER: Well, I’m excited about the next 200. So you have plenty more to go in terms of talking about these. I do need to touch on a couple of subjects that I know your new listeners, your alumni, those that have been with you since podcast one must have on their mind right now, which is, this life of ambiguity and this life of uncertainty. Let’s sort of talk about, if we could, this return to the office. And I shared with someone the other day, it sounded like a B rated sci-fi movie, like return to lake plastic. Return to the office. But do you think, Jennifer, that it’s possible that we’ve fallen out of love? That we’ve not been together and that is it really a desire not to come back to work or not to come back to you?
JENNIFER BROWN: Not to come back and have to be the person that you were in the office. I am not even sure we remember how to be that person. I’m not even sure it’s possible to be that person anymore. All the compromises we made, all the ways we played small. And I really take your point, that that environment it has been repudiated. It has been torn apart. It has been shown in the light to be super broken. Maybe it’s something some people miss, but I’ll tell you in the world’s you and I circulate in, that the freedom of detaching from that and being able to, whether it’s self protection of self behind a screen, which is totally real… When you feel threatened by an environment, this is a safe place. But the freedom to articulate who we are and dress how we want, to express our gender in the way that we want to, to not have to walk around in the physical location and be judged.
I mean, so much of bias is tied up to physical appearance. To be able to strangely in a virtual world that you think would dehumanize us, I know a lot of us feel more real than we have ever felt in working this way. But that’s me coming at it from knowing that the workplace has been so toxic for so many of us and wanting us to be free, to free to do our best work and whatever freedom looks like. And others of us who knows, maybe we do our best and we’re our most creative and wherever we can feel free. I mean, to me, there’s nothing more important than that. Because freedom means creativity, adequate support, and comfort means that I can now create.
So my conversation I would be high having, if I could wave my magic wand is to say, “What is this customized designed environment look like for each one of us?” And then if I were a manager, my answer is, “How can I then enable each person to have that customized environment so they’re most comfortable?” That’s so important to me. But workplaces have never been good at this. This is never a conversation we’ve had. We are in the business of forcing people to conform and deliver and hit their goals and follow the processes and the policies. And so I take your point, H, there’s deep tissue work. And I’m not sure, so can we create something new? And I think those of us who focus on DEI can actually lead the way in creating what’s new. We need to be upfront. We need to be the voices that are heated in the shaping of how do we build something better and different that works for all of us. If we’re not at those tables, we are going to build what we used to have, and that cannot happen.
So I also feel very drawn in the future towards that future of work, the bigger conversation about purpose and contribution, and psychological safety and how do we unleash human potential? What are the circumstances of that? How do I want to be led? How do I want to lead? How do I want to be in colleagueship? How do I do better in a team? Do I do better in a team? What do my team members need to know about who I am in order to support me and vice versa? These are all fundamental questions. There’s a million books written on them, but I almost feel like I don’t read any leadership books right now, H, that were written before a certain time. Literally I’ll be… I don’t know whether you do this, but you’re reading along and you check the copyright, don’t you?
H WALKER: Yes, yes, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Because everything has changed, and so it’s just I hate… There’s some oldies and goodies, and actually there’s some really old stuff that’s I think more true than ever. I mean, that’s I hope my book, someday when the world is going through horrible [crosstalk 00:57:41] again, again, and again, people are like, “Oh, that book from 2019. Jack, have you heard about it?” I hope it’s timeless. Because some stuff is really timeless. Like the stages of grief, things I go back to all the time, and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Just reading that is so still so true. The grief, the anger, the defensiveness, the denial, the sadness, the acceptance and the curve we go through.
That’s why I keep coming back. The will is so fascinating to me because this is a conversation we will always be having. The way is the construct of the workplace, whatever that ends up looking like. But I’m fascinated with them, the will of creativity. What springs up in us that feels like our best and highest use. And how far away is each of us from that? And that’s a call to action for our listeners. Sometimes you must pinch yourself and say, “I’m pretty close to working from source.” I get that feeling about you. [crosstalk 00:58:50] Is that true?
H WALKER: Yes, indeed you are. Yes, exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: We’re very fortunate and that shouldn’t just be ours to enjoy and to relish that we got here, it should be available to all of us. The workplace should be a place that encourages that, that accelerates that, that brings things into alignment. Because work is not something that we can ever dispense with unless we get… What is it called? Automatic salary someday for not working. I mean, who knows where our world is going. But until that time, the workplace is this amazing laboratory to study our best and highest use. And for the leaders in the architects of that workplace to question what is interrupting that and what can we build that enables a clear channel for that, because going to be when amazing things happen. I mean, you and I know that, but unfortunately there’s a ton of noise and a ton of static and a lot of confusion and lack of clarity about priorities. And also just a lack of, I think, kindness and empathy and compassion for others’ experience in the same exact system.
And until we can get people to recognize we’re in the same storm, but different boats and how is my destiny wrapped up with the person in the boat over there? Do I see the other boats? Am I contributing to make sure those boats are seaworthy? What am I doing? Because I don’t know, what else is the meaning of life, to just gather things and materials and die with the most toys? It was never enough for me. I think you can still awaken late in life to something much bigger like I’m talking about. I mean, I think it’s still extremely legitimate to have the awakening after maybe you were a version of yourself that was not questioning these things.
H WALKER: Yeah. I think the awakening is… I believe that there are some… I love that you continuously use the terminology of freedom and truth, which we would think would be very basic in terms of what we allow one another. But the math of organizations, let’s just pick a number, that had a thousand employees working remotely and let’s say working from home. And literally asking these employees, will you run my business out of your home, the most sacred, private place for many humans, they will ever own this 1,300, 2,000, 3,000 square feet. I’m actually allowing you to come into my home for eight to 10 hours a day and I am running your business from my home. I have literally dug into the ground and I have created roots in there, and so now it feels like the agreement is changing and that the freedom is being lost. And that my identity of what I created for my family in terms of what the definitions of freedom are different.
So I believe the will is never more needed in terms of how to cultivate it than now. I believe what The Will To Change is going to do for me as I continue to listen to the next 200 episodes, is build tenacity, resilience, a fortitude that is unshakable. But I also want you to know, Jennifer, that I have never met you, and yet I love you [crosstalk 01:02:38]. And it is an amazing feeling to know that as sentient beings, while I crave human connection, that we have advanced to a point in life where we can actually transfer that spiritually, be it mentally and soulfully through a channel.
And so the will for me, is going to be continuing to do that. Helping individuals to have freedom within the framework of how they choose to live their life. Understanding that there’s some mutual adaptation, there are agreements about how we choose to live our lives. But I will tell you, there was a manager that was talking about, “Oh, H, just give me the answers. Just give me the checklist. There’s got to be 15 things I can do.” And I said to the manager, “Is there a checklist and 15 things to do to manage your spouse and children?” And they said, “Well, no.” And I said, “Well, why do you think the human beings that work for you are any different? Why do you think there’s a checklist?” We are not things to be fixed. As you move forward, what would you like your listeners to know that they have given you in these last 200 episodes and what you need from them in the next 200?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, H, your questions, I can’t even. I hope the listeners are appreciating the beauty of that. It’s an arresting question. What have people given me? Oh my gosh, their trust, their strength. I mean, energetically, if it’s possible to feel something, like you just described virtually, the energy, the way we can fill each other’s cup, having never met is happening all the time. That energy exchange is happening all the time, I believe it. I mean, I’m an extrovert and I have been so stimulated, I think, and have grown so much working virtually and not being able to speak at keynotes. Because I feel moved and changed by every single person that dials into everything I do. I feel them, I feel them. And it helps in chat to read, certainly the comments, the shares, the vulnerability, the honesty, the reflection. “This is what resonated with me. This is what I’m taking with me. This is how I feel moved. I’m feeling emotional.”
So my experience all this time, virtually, with my audience has been that we are not alone. And I need to be reminded that we’re not alone. To your question earlier of, do you let get to be vulnerable? And my vulnerability is feeling the solitude of, I guess, of the warrior. Some of us that we’ve taken on this, is to feel if I’m not leading who is? And that can be a very lonely place. So anybody who’s leading a charge, it is all about for me anyway, doing it together, it’s necessary, it’s needed.
So I have just been filled and the appreciation and the love and the notes that people send us and the gratitude of our guests, to be highlighted in the way that they are and the fact that I can actually show these amazing people to thousands of listeners and that I get to actually kind of step back and let that happen, because it’s very little effort for me. It’s such a perfect… When I try to describe privileges, one of the privileges I think of is platform. Some of us have a platform for whatever reason to share it, to give it, to use it strategically is something Will To Change allows me to do. And so I continue to just pour in and the pouring comes back to me. I forget what your second question was, but I was-
H WALKER: It was, what do you want to receive from them in the next 200?
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, and maybe let me include guests in them-
H WALKER: Yes, please.
JENNIFER BROWN: … because the guests are, and everybody who uses their voice on this platform, I’m listening, I’m learning, I’m taking notes. I’m changing along with my audience. So many days, I feel like one of the audience really, and I’m just facilitating it. So learning about things I don’t know, competencies that I don’t have, new language that I get to discover, which as a storyteller I’m kind of on the hunt for language all the time. I’m like a forger in the forest. I’m like, “How can I describe this differently?” We just said a new acronym earlier, the global majority.
So that kind of stuff I love, new frameworks. I want the audience to push me. If there’s an area that I’m not being direct enough, if there’s an area that I’m somehow not being accountable for, holding others accountable for it. I’m willing to be calibrated in that way, because I think I’m always trying to find myself in the sort of… I think our roles are like dancing on the head of a pin, H. That’s the trick. I love it as a performer, of course. Imagine how much a performer loves that, but it is so much work. It’s really intense. So I would say also compassion for me is something I would like.
H WALKER: Yes, yes. [crosstalk 01:08:48]
JENNIFER BROWN: Let me just say that, because-
H WALKER: Good.
JENNIFER BROWN: … it’s got to be said. The, “Hey, I’m out here, I’m using everything I can and I’m trying to be the best messenger I can be to audiences that need to hear me. And the messenger is in this package, which is nothing that I can change. But what I can do with this package that you’re… you and I are looking at each other, but what I can do with this is use it and I want to use it to its best and highest, most important use.” So audience has to understand that’s where I’m coming from, that’s my intent, that’s where my will springs from.
And maybe the audience can also steer me in the right directions of where my help is needed most. I think I went from serving everybody, H, feeling that I could never not be here for any audience. Give me the LGBTQ folks or pride and allies, give me the ERGs, give me this and that. And the variety of audiences has been so fun for me, but I think I’m getting to a point where there’s so many others that are so talented and they can be wonderful, effective messengers for different groups of people. The question I’m sitting with coming into this is where am I needed most? And then where am I going to feel the most alive? Because that’s the piece for me. It’s the duality and the mutuality of, gosh, that was satisfying. That felt juicy. I felt changed by that. I want to be changed. I feel changed by this conversation.
H WALKER: Me too. [crosstalk 01:10:25]
JENNIFER BROWN: Like me and I traveled miles and I want more of that in my life. Maybe I do miss that because we’re virtual and maybe this used to be four hour walks, and being in nature, being in a place where we could sort of pick our head up. But we’re pretty good at recreating it.
H WALKER: Yes. Well, I am certain one day we will be doing a documentary on all of your fabulous work. On this 200th episode, is there anything behind the scenes you would love to share about how you put on this production? Is there anything you would like to give us a peek behind the curtain and how you get ready? Just anything at all?
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh. Well, let’s see. It’s the design of everything is a team effort and you’ll hear… We’re kind of an unusual podcast, I think because we have all these other pieces of content that we air. We have panels that we air. We have interviews of me like this, that we air. We have community calls where I bring on the clients to tell us what this inside scoop is on how they’re doing their work and what they’re coming up against.
And so the variety, I think we’re going to continue. We’re going to keep looking for the most interesting conversations, the most cutting edge, the conversations that you’re not having. The identities and the lived experiences that you’re not coming across in what’s out there. I think it would be wonderful. I focus a lot on formerly incarcerated talent as this massive talent pool with so much potential and yet so overlooked and literally blocked from employment, having to pay for the infractions for the rest of their lives.
To me, that’s a cutting edge topic, identity, lived experience, problem to solve for businesses. I love it on so many levels. And so I will keep bringing those voices to the fore on The Will To Change. And if there’s anything I’m missing in emerging conversations, around future of work and ethical dilemmas. Dilemmas around even inclusion as it pertains in equity, as it pertains to vaccination status. I mean, you talk about like hurting your head, and I would never call myself an expert, but what I can do is bring some folks on who have really important insights and challenge us to think about this as is this an inclusion and inequity issue? Is the answer not clear about this?
I would say it is not clear. And I would say that it absolutely has implications for DEI leaders. We are all different, we’re going to believe different things. Then how do we turn around and steer our organization with something that we are torn about, that we’re not sure about, that we have family members who are making different choices than we are. Where do we go from that as leaders? We need to lead in this chaos, even within ourselves, even within our families. We then have to turn around and make decisions and policies for large organizations to be able to function. I don’t envy you, H, and others who are internal who hold this in your hand every day. I just want to say, it’s a sacred thing. I see you and everybody else that listens, I always say this on the community call that I see the difficulty of this work, I acknowledge it. I just want you to know it is one of the most beautifully challenging things you can choose to do with your life. And the work finds us, doesn’t it?
H WALKER: Yes, it does. [crosstalk 01:14:10] I was sharing with one of the leaders at our company. And I just said, if you listen to the business, it will tell you what to do and it will tell you what it needs. All you have to do is listen. And the answer is in the room.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good.
H WALKER: It’s okay to get the answer in the room. You may not know what to do with it [crosstalk 01:14:34] external help in terms of the architecture and the engineering of that answer. But wow, the answer is in the room. I remember reading a story where a consultant was called in to motivate the employees and went in, had conversations, came back and told the leader, the leader said, “So did you figure out how we can motivate the employees?” And the consultant said, “Yes, by getting rid of what is demotivating them.”
JENNIFER BROWN: Hello.
H WALKER: Now I’ll take my money and I see later. And it was true because he said, people come to you motivated. They don’t interview and go, “Gee, I cannot wait to come here and just be miserable, horrible, have an attitude and gossip all day. What happens when I get in these four walls? What shakes me to my core? I live here. If I work eight hours a day, that’s 1/3 of my life. I don’t want 1/3 of my life to be miserable. I don’t want 1/3 of my life to…” I mean, we get it. We know the framework, organizations are not democracies. I don’t vote for my boss. I don’t vote for rules and policies and guidelines. I make a decision to come work for you, but I also make a decision to be human and to be equal to you. And you need to figure out how to make both happen.
JENNIFER BROWN: You can walk and chew gum, people.
H WALKER: Yes, exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: You can do this, you have the capability and the competence and the capacity. You have the capacity. I don’t know why we just have convinced ourselves, scarcity, whatever else. You can hold all the things, you can. And by the way, that’s the job of a leader. If you sign up-
H WALKER: Two minutes [crosstalk 01:16:29].
JENNIFER BROWN: If you sign up for this, this is what you’re taking on. But it’s also just the most beautiful, sacred challenge you could ever sign up for. And it transforms you as you figure it out in ways that you can’t even imagine. And I wish sometimes leaders could see their future self transformed because they just get very what’s in front of me right now.
H WALKER: Jennifer, first, I’m so honored and privileged to be here with you, to share this time and space with you. From the deepest part of my heart and soul and spirit, thank you for what you have done for thousands around the world in your first 200 episodes. And thank you for what you are going to do with the next 200 episodes. I cannot wait to listen in. You are a marvel that we need. Every organization who reaches out is going to be changed. They’re going to transform, and they’re going to find the solutions to the answers that their employees are providing them. Thank you so very much and congratulations.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, H. This was incredible. I’m so glad you got to meet The Will To Change audience. Everybody please, a big virtual round of applause for H. Thank you.
Hi, this is Jennifer. Did you know that we offer a full transcript of every podcast episode on my website over @beta.hashe.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 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 jenniferbrownspeaks.com. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back next time with a new episode.
- MLK Day Replay: Intersectional Panel on Civil Rights including Jennifer and other L’Oréal USA DEI Advisory Board Members
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- Owning Your Power: Jennifer Joins the Beyond Barriers Podcast
- Cultivating a Purpose Mindset in Next-Gen Leaders: Social Entrepreneur Aaron Hurst Returns to the Will to Change