In this episode, originally recorded as a DEI Community Call, Jennifer Brown is joined by Brian McComak and Elizabeth Roy, both consultants at JBC, Bernadette Smith, the CEO of Equality Institute and Mita Mallick, the Head of Inclusion, Equity and Impact at Carta.
Hear from the panel about the transition into DEI from non-traditional roles and efforts to engage more voices in this work.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Brian’s journey into the DEI world (16:00)
- The importance of allyship (18:00)
- Mita’s formative experiences and how they led her to her current role (27:00)
- A powerful social media platform for sharing stories (32:00)
- The importance of self-care strategies for DEI practitioners (37:00)
- Elizabeth’s career trajectory and why she battled imposter syndrome (40:00)
- What Elizabeth enjoys most about her current role (47:00)
- How Bernadette went from activist wedding planner to her current role (50:00)
- Why you need to find your zone of genius (59:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Let’s see. All of you know probably I came to New York to be an opera singer, before that though I was in non-profits. So, I held every role possible, development director, community organizer. It’s where I met my partner, Michelle. We were co-activists actually in Boston in this sort of community space. But as also a singer, so came to New York, got my master’s in voice, injured my voice, had to get surgeries. And then my performer community said, “Why don’t you look into corporate training?” And I didn’t know there was such a thing. I didn’t know what leadership development was, but I pursued it. I trusted them.
And because they said your stagecraft can be translated into this world of being put what’s called on-platform. So, in adult learning theory, facilitating adults in the business context. And I, again, did not know that was the thing. Turned out, was really good at it, loved it, got a master’s in leadership development and organizational change and was a training and development coordinator in an insurance, and then a director of training and development. My last corporate role, which was at Tommy Hilfiger of all places, which was pretty toxic culture.
That’s another story. And I was laid off. And then what I realized as I was going through this is I didn’t want to be an administrator of a D&I function internally, and I didn’t think I wanted to be an employee. So, when I got laid off from Tommy in a restructure, I called all the training vendors that had been teaching me, and I said, “Do you need a facilitator?” Because I think what I really love is being in front of groups. And that was very clear to me. And I didn’t want to be sitting in a cube for the rest of my life. I just needed to be out with the people teaching. So, I I subcontracted as a leadership trainer for several years. Taught the entire soft skills catalog, everything, conflict management, negotiation skills, business writing, presentation skills, all of this stuff.
And I just got five MBAs in a couple years. It was incredible to be in all these different clients, but I wasn’t responsible for selling the work. I just deliver the work and there are salespeople that were selling me in as the talent. And then lo and behold, I decided, “You know what? I’m bigger than this. I want more.” I stopped subcontracting. I got my first huge client that enabled me to create my LLC. It was just me selling, delivering, billing, everything. And then I slowly built a team. This was 13 years ago with a bookkeeper and a part-time marketer and an admin.
And then I sent my first consultant in and I was like, “Oh, I can work on the business, not in the business.” And I realized I didn’t want to be in the classroom all day long. I actually, again, wanted more. And more for me would be, “okay, if I can build an infrastructure, people going in and delivering, then I can write books, I can keynote, I can speak, I can sort of have this higher level thought leader role,” that I think I’m having today and I’m really enjoying. And so I guess, Brian, how much time do I have left?
BRIAN MCCOMAK: So, you still have two minutes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, okay. As a turbo.
BRIAN MCCOMAK: And Jennifer, if I could just ask as you’ve left a couple of minutes, is could you include how you learn DEI in that transition?
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. So, it’s really unorthodox and all of our stories are so unorthodox. So, in the JDC, rolling along as a leadership development company and D&I was a glimmer in my eye, but I was heavily involved in LGBTQ workplace advocacy. I was on the first board in New York for Out & Equal 20 years ago. On this board where Todd Sears, the whole IBM team that was working on LGBTQ solely back then with full-time jobs, paid jobs, and Deloitte. I just was like, “Whoa, I learned all about LGBT workplace advocacy from those early stages when we didn’t have anybody that knew how to do this.” And we were fighting for domestic partner benefits, literally. So I learned I think the D&I business case so beautifully by being in the LGBTQ community, because we’ve always talked about it in those terms.
And so I was able to over time pivot the firm into D&I, but I didn’t have a huge background in it at all. So, the way I learned is, I luckily, I’m the sales and marketer and in addition to the consultants, so I found consultants that knew so much more than I did, brought them into the firm, sold them and their expertise into the classroom and into clients. And I took more of the role of CEO enabling that. And then I sat in the back of the room and listened and learned and observed and kind of connected the dots and learned from others way before I had any kind of expertise. And at that time I never knew I would be writing books on this. I never knew. If you would ask me like, “Is that in your future?”
I just wouldn’t have thought that. But over time, then pivoting strongly into D&I and that’s all we do now, then continuing to attract amazing people who brought their IP and their models and other people’s models and just literally being steeped in it, Brian, I hope that answers your question. But it was a really backdoor way of expertise building. And I leveraged my sales and marketing abilities to build the house almost before I knew how to live in the house. So, I think the message in that is of course, nothing in you is wasted. You may need to kind of think about creative ways to leverage your way in using something else, perhaps until you’re ready to kind of burst forth and call yourself something.
I love that. Of course, I love that. And actually, I don’t think I and probably did know this, but I had forgotten it that you started out as a leadership development consultant that then made the pivot over the course of time. So, I love that. And yeah, I think it’s just helpful for all of us to know that these journeys into DEI are very organic and I think that is one of the themes you’re going to hear from all of our stories. So, I’ll offer a bit of a bit of my history. And I see there’s some questions coming up in chat. Please know we’re going to keep an eye on those and we’ll come back to those after we all have a chance to share our stories, or we might weave them into the answers.
So, my first career was in movie theater, operations management. I worked for AMC theaters for 10 years, and I came out when I was in the movie theater industry and was wonderfully accepted by all of my coworkers, sometimes to my disappointment because I wanted there to be more drama. But they really just didn’t care that I was gay. But I was always incredibly fortunate. When I stepped into the role of an HR professional, I went back in the closet and I didn’t feel like the world had not given me messages that I could be out and have a successful career in corporate America. I was incredibly fortunate in that first role that I had a mentor who was an actor gay man at that company who helped me come out and said, “Brian, you can totally be you here and have a great career.”
That was really significant. And I still tell that story on a regular basis today, because that is a foundational story to why I do this work. I wanted to do this work back then and had started to explore some opportunities at that company. I was even asked to start the pride ERG at that company 20 years ago. And I decided back then that I didn’t want to be the gay HR guy. And so I had my own stigma that I was applying to my own identity and how I wanted to show up in the world. So I had a lot of work to do on think on me and how I could integrate my identity and my passion for the respect for others and the work that I was doing. So, fast forward, through my career, I’ve had a chance to work at some really phenomenal organizations.
I worked at L’Oreal. I worked at Christie’s auction house. Red Lobster was where I started my career. All in HR roles. And all of those HR roles had some opportunity to do DEI work, respect for others, inclusive work. Red Lobster, which was the first company I mentioned was one of the companies that was ahead of its time. So, I learned a lot about DEI as an HR person and why it was important in our work for representation or inclusion of others from different identities. We didn’t use that word back then the way we use it today. But my story for DEI didn’t really intersect. And so I was at The Walt Disney Company and I had a leader who saw that I was bursting at the scenes to really be an advocate for others.
And so I was really fortunate that I had, her name was Buki Formosa. Buki said, “Brian, you have to be on our diversity committee.” And she got me on the corporate diversity committee for The Walt Disney Company, which then opened these doors for me to start learning. And then that led to the opportunity that transpired at Tapestry, where they asked me if I would head up their DEI COE, which then led me to be being appointed the global head of diversity inclusion there. And I met Jennifer, and then Jennifer and her team gave me opportunities to do some consulting. And so it just continued to grow from that passion that started 20 years ago that I didn’t let come to life to a leader who opened the door for me to opportunities that have continued to open for me, for people like Jennifer and Rob, who works on her team who’ve given me the chance to do some consulting work.
I think the biggest thing for me has been that learning process as well, which is probably why I asked the question, Jennifer, is when I started, it was really easy for me to talk about my identity as a gay man and my passion for the LGBTQ+ community. And what I learned really quickly is, well, my stories helped me build what I call bridges of trust. And so I share my stories to build bridges of trust. What people need to hear from me is that I see them, I see the woman of color. I see the person who lives with a disability. I see you and your identity and I won’t claim to know your story, but I’m here to be an advocate and an ally for you.
And I think that’s been the journey I’ve really spent a lot of time on is how do I demonstrate that commitment? How do I have an understanding? How do I demonstrate my allyship? How do I open those doors? And that’s been a big part of my journey. And then I think, I know I saw a question in there of how do you get companies to recognize the experience you have is relevant? And so what I’ve done, I’ll just add that as my final comment is my experience in HR is all about change management, organizational change, company culture, employee engagement. And so what I say is, here’s what I do. I drive organizational change. I now do organizational change through the lens of diversity and inclusion. So, everyone feels they can bring their best self to work. And so that’s how I’ve tried to brand myself as I’m the change person who does the I work. And so I think that’s been important for me is to figure out how do I find my brand?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful, Brian. Yeah, what you just said, I just want to put a pin in that. The D&I skillsets actually not DEI necessarily, it is leadership development for sure. It’s organizational design and structure and it’s change management. And so when I mentor people, I recommend they go straight towards those learnings, because the lens can come mainly from our identity experiences and the limitations of our identity experiences, and also our sort of active allyship in our understanding of all the different pieces we bring, whether it’s marginalized identities or privileged identities and everything in between. And then you need some good sort of strategy chops around DEI. So, so much of our currency is we tried it here. We tried it there, we did it this way here. This really worked, what are the bones of a successful strategy? And so, Brian, I’m assuming you kind of picked that up along the way so that you know how to build that now. But that’s not in any book. So I guess, is there anything you’d add about where did you get the frameworks that you use to assist clients?
BRIAN MCCOMAK: Yeah, I think it’s such a good question. And I think for those of you on the call who may not know, in addition to my opportunity to the work I do with Jennifer Brown, consulting, I also have a chance to lead my own consulting firm and do work with clients. And so I spent a lot of time with clients helping to understand where they are today and assessing their current DEI journey of the company and then helping them figure out what their path forward and what’s their strategy look like. I think what I really lean on is the collection of the experiences you just identified, Jennifer. I have been a manager and a leader and I’ve made plenty of mistakes in those roles, but those mistakes have helped me learn.
I’ve done organizational change, I’ve developed engagement strategies. I’ve worked in an employee engagement surveys. I know surveys that are through the lens of DEI in understanding people’s experiences through identities. And then I know how to drive organizational change and help take people through a journey. And now that journey is to help people see each other through different lenses and understand each other and respect each other and accept each other. So I really lean on most of my HR work. What I do have to do though, is sometimes when I’m in the room with someone, or what I find is when I’m talking with leaders who are making the hiring decisions about roles, whether consulting decisions or in-house decisions, there’s so much that people still don’t understand about this space.
So, I have to find ways, in a respectful way, sort of help them sort of see it through another lens by telling my story about how can I help them and how can they trust me? Because they’re like, “I don’t know the answer. I know I know it’s tricky and I know it’s sensitive and I don’t want to get it wrong.” So how do I help them feel confident that they’re in safe hands and that we’re going to be able to do some really great work together.
JENNIFER BROWN: And so much of what you just described is sort of consulting skills in the best sense which is the space holding for people to meet the learner where they’re at. And a really formative book I read that I always recommend is Peter Block’s book, Flawless Consulting. It was the book that, and it’s old, he’s still around, but it’s an old book. But it just opened my eyes to the fact that my knowledge is what I am sharing. And that it is okay to just have some of that knowledge be, asking the right questions or setting the table or like Brian, you said sort of sussing out the emotional journey also because this topic is really, as we know, can be very Laden. And when we walk into organizations, it can be lots of history there.
And you’ve got to know that history because that history can sink whatever you try to do if you don’t contextualize the work. So yeah, and if somebody’s been in one organization for a long time, my other advice, I don’t know if everybody agrees on the panel, but the more different kinds of industries, the more exposure you have, the more big orgs, small orgs, different industries, mature efforts, early efforts. That to me is one of most important currencies that we bring. And that context is important. And again, sort of more important perhaps than the credentializing. And by the way, it would be great, we can chat. And maybe, Brian, you have some thoughts on credentials. We’re talking a lot about now these different kinds of learning sources, and then there’s the letters after our name in the certification programs and all that kind of stuff, which is good and a really good investment also.
But interestingly, I don’t have any of those. It wasn’t how I got into this and I don’t, Brian, I don’t know what you have or Mita or whatever, but at some point let’s make sure we include that because I’m sure people are wondering, would that give me a head start? Would it at least legitimize me a bit more. You’re always gonna learn something from every single program. I mean, that’s always what I say. And if nothing else, you’re going to network with other people in the field who, by the way, are going to give you your first chance. That’s what happened to me that I was always given my chances, not by sending resumes anywhere, but because somebody saw me on a panel, they saw how I show up, they saw me at a conference and they’re like, “I trust her and she might be somebody who would resonate with my leaders.” Maybe I want to make that introduction. I think too, it’s showing your stuff and looking for opportunities to do that is really important when you’re trying to be seen.
BRIAN MCCOMAK: Yeah, absolutely. And I don’t think there’s an easy answer on the certification question. And I want to answer this and I want to ask then pass it over to Mita, and ask her to share her story, because I think one of the corollaries that I think Mita and I have is we both worked in companies of very different sizes. And we both found ways to incorporate DEI into the work we were doing which then allowed others to give us more chances, which then allowed us to get the roles that led to. And you’re right, I think part of who’s your sponsor and who’s going to give you those opportunities. And I know, Jennifer, you and I both try to open doors for others. And I know that that’s true for other panelists on the call. So, Mita, do you want to jump in and share your story because I know this is all true for you too?
MITA MALLICK: Yes, no, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here today. I’ll start with my story of, I’m a passionate storyteller. I’m obsessed with TV. I love watching TV. It’s the biggest fight my husband and I have over raising a five and eight year old and a pandemic because let them watch TV. They’ll be fine. Loved writing, loved reading and probably as a reflect on, was that an innate ability or was I pushed into it? One of the first times I shared my story was on Jennifer’s podcast. So, shout out to her and she’s a great interviewer and I hadn’t anticipated sharing it, but I did share my experiences of being bullied growing up both verbally and physically and being really excluded. Was raised outside of Boston proud daughter of Indian immigrant parents. And we were only a handful of families of color.
So not only did I feel excluded in my community, but I also felt like I was being raised in a world where I didn’t belong. And so I loved Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, obsessed with TLC, Toni Braxton. I don’t identify as black, but I identify with the black community. And as a young girl, I was craving role models, but I didn’t feel like products and services really spoke to me. I can remember my mom going back from India, bringing products back for face masks or creating things in the kitchen. That was always sort of a theme in my life. And so no surprise that I went to become a storyteller, a marketer, I don’t have any credentials. I do have an MBA. I don’t lead with that because I think there’s so much bias in education.
So, I actually don’t spend a lot of time talking about where I went to school because I don’t think that’s for me, something important to lead with. But I do think getting an MBA helped me with strategic thinking and consulting when I had been in the nonprofit space before business school. So I agree with Jennifer on that point on consulting being a key piece of strategic thinking. So, I went on to a number of different assignments and no surprised I was on a Vino and for the first time really advocating for black talent to be included in a multimedia campaign, we had never had black talent. Then I’m at Avon creating color cosmetics. And I literally was like, “These flushes don’t work on my skin tone. Who am I creating this for? There’s not enough pigment in it.” And then it was my career high helping turn around the Vaseline business at Unilever.
And that was a business that was built with the love and the trust and the respect of black African-American households around the country. And we had walked away from that consumer for all the reasons that you might expect through bias. And so it was really proud to sign Viola Davis to help turn that business around. And then I was asked by my then CEO to take on the assignment to lead inclusion. I was approached three times and I said, no, three times. And my younger brother said, “It’s probably time for you to say yes if the CEO keeps asking you to take this assignment,” but it was my bias, “What do you do in inclusion? What do you do in HR? I’m a business person. Why would I go into this work?”
But if I share with you my story, and then it makes sense why I would do this work not only to be a change maker in a larger organization, but also to think about how brands and products and services show up. Because I think too often, it is really important to think about black African-American representation. Who gets to sit around the table and why, but at the same time we should be asking ourselves, how are we growing our products and services with these communities in terms of representation, in terms of products, in terms of insights. That’s really my passion point. I then recently just left Unilever.
So I’m in week four into a new role, Day Forum, because I love Brian and Jennifer so much. I was like, “I’m here, I’m going to do this.” And I met a company called Carta and we are all about equity ownership. And so it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of conversation around compensation and the gap in compensation, especially between, let’s say men and women, but what about equity and who gets to be equity owners? So I think that’s a really fascinating conversation. And Jennifer’s point, I had spent years in CPG, really large, 150,000 person company to 900 people to selling beauty products, I always joke my husband is the foodie. I’m good with community and competition. I’m not a foodie. I’m a beauty girl. Beauty products to FinTech, right? But the reason I did that, and it was really funny, was having conversations with some family in India and they were shocked that I would leave Unilever, “Who leaves Unilever?
You’re going to Cardiay, you mean the bracelet people, the bracelet company.” And I was like, “No, there’s no Cardiay discounts, not Cardiay. Carta, FinTech,” but it’s also people’s perceptions of you and the moves you make. But I think to Jennifer’s point going from something for me, really big institutionalized, well-known, different challenges to going somewhere where I can help build and grow was something that was really important to me to showcase. And then before I turn it back over in terms of learning, when I took this job, when I entered this space rather four and a half, almost five years ago now, the first book my husband handed me, my husband’s also a first generation Indian was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. And he said, “If you want to do this work, you need to read this book.”
And so I think there’s a big piece. There’s a theme on understanding life experiences that are not your own and how can you build empathy and you don’t need to go to, as you all know, the only black person you know, which that’s a problem in and of itself, but it’s not the burden of black and brown people to constantly educate. There’s so much material out there. I also was politely, constantly stalking people in a pre pandemic world, going to conferences. I met Jennifer at forum for workplace inclusion. I don’t know if she remembers, we had dinner one night, happened to sit at a table with you.
Brian, I met through LinkedIn. I shared one of his posts and he was like, “How do we get 2,000 likes on this?” And so just being open to meeting people and then also thinking about how you can help people. So, what value can I add if I’m going to talk to someone who’s a D&I practitioner. I’m a marketing person. I’m a business person. I’m really good at LinkedIn. If you spend time with me, how can I help you in return? that’s a little bit about my education.
BRIAN MCCOMAK: I love that. And I know that Mita you and I both share a passion for sharing on LinkedIn, a passion for sharing the stories of others and amplifying the voices of others and sparking conversation, which I love. One of the things that I’m curious about is, so you share your story authentically, and of course I’ve heard the full story of your background, your personal story, which storytelling I think is really important for us in this work, because it builds those bridges of trust. How did you learn about the identities of others though? What did that look like for you? So, you can then say, “I’m a hero, I’m an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community or other groups that aren’t part of your idea.”
MITA MALLICK: Yeah. I think even before I was formally in this space being really involved in ERGs or BRGs, if you call them business resource groups as an advocate, showing up to any of those groups to learn and listen, and there’s so much material out there through reading. Also, just through being honest. When I first took the assignment at Unilever, I realized I actually did not know anybody in my life who was a veteran. There was not one person that I could not. I was like, “I don’t know what it’s like to be a veteran. I have no idea.” And so in my first meeting with the co-chair of the veterans business resource group, I was really honest to say, “I actually don’t know who that are.” And is it embarrassing? Yeah. Is it also just honest and candid?
Yeah. You have to ask for help. And so I got connected with American Corporate Partners, which Unilever has been a big sponsor of, a great non-profit that helps veterans transition into corporate life. And I became a mentor for the last three years. I was assigned to mentor someone who was transitioning. And I got a lot out of that because I was helping that individual think about how do you position your resume based on your experience of being in the Navy. But I also got so much out of what that person’s life experience had been. So, I think you also have to just be open and honest about the relationships you don’t have, but at the same time, avoid tokenism to say, Mita is the only brown person I know.” But also to say that, “If I do know Mita, and I’m standing with Mita, I’m going to put my heart into this relationship like I would with any relationship that’s meaningful to me.”
BRIAN MCCOMAK: And I presume and that, so I’m going to make an assumption because it’s just how it works for me is that your intention and commitment to those experiences, then when you’re having conversations with a company like Carta, who’s like, “Hey, how are you, why are you the right person for this role?” You can say here’s some things that I’ve actively done to champion and advocate for others or to drive change. Is that right?
MITA MALLICK: Yeah, I would absolutely agree. I think for me being an advocate for the black community is something that’s always been important to me. It’s also a journey. There’s no destination we’re running to, but I’m on a journey for that. And a lot of the things I have, whether it’s training or development or conversations I posted has been for others as well as for me, and also to say very bluntly, it’s not the job of our black friends and colleagues to educate us on issues that the black community are facing. It’s our job to educate. And so to be bold and say that to the CEO in an interview, I guess he liked it, so I got the job. But also to show up authentically, and I think that’s part of like, “This is what you’re going to get with me. You either like it or you don’t.” And so I think that’s important too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. I love it. You’re so uncompromising Mita, and your voice is so strong. And that accomplishing behavior is so powerful because sometimes we are the only one that can bring that because you find yourself in a room and you’re the only, and yet there’s multitudes, we contain multitudes. And when I say we it’s like all of these communities that we love, that we’ve studied, that we’ve taken the stories on board and the statistics and if we can be a mouthpiece for that, that really will create a lot of change. And by the way, lessen the burden of having to do that all the time, because these issues need to be spoken, whether you were in the room or not. And someday you will be in a room and that piece we’ve got to change, but in the meantime we have to bridge and we’ve got to be sharing that knowledge. That’s just beautiful Mita, thank you.
MITA MALLICK: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for all that. Let’s see. And you can read and chat and see if you’ve got some questions. There’s reading lists, questions, some other stuff for you Mita in here. So, I’ll give you a chance to check it out. And by the way, there’s an HBO special on The World and Me, the book that Mita just mentioned on HBO this weekend, and I didn’t know that. That’s amazing. There’s also a question here about self care. So, potentially need to be, Brian, and while we go to Liz next, Brian and Mita can share what their strategies are for that, because yes, it is deeply personal. It can feel sometimes like we are being triggered often, that we are not being taken care of as we are taking care of everyone else.
That can either energize you because it reminds you of the importance of what we’re actually doing, but it can also be the death by 1,000 cuts. And we have to be really careful to live in that empathy that we all have to have to be good at this, means that everything can wash over us. And we absorb, we’re shock absorbers for all that bias we protect. And when you’re protecting, you’re that head bowling pin, you’re that tip and that tip takes a lot of pressure. So the question is sort of what is the give, the give and the pressure, right? What is the backstop? It’s the marshland between the ocean and land? So what is that sort of that permeable layer of flexibility in the middle there, and what happens before something hits you full force and causes damage, right?
And we all kind of cope with that and really different ways, but that’s what it always feels like to me. And yet I’m able to bounce back and work with the force to redirect the force in a different way. And I think facilitation skills is one thing I would really recommend everybody, study. We facilitate for a living. This is what we do. And facilitation is an art. I remember when I started studying facilitation, my brain felt like I was going to explode because I was like, “Wait a second. This is a thing, there’s actually an art to saying, “I have two hours with a group of people and I did take them from A to B, what do I do in that time? And how do I encourage trust and how do I get them involved? And there were so many techniques that I didn’t know about until I did my master’s degree.
That’s another piece to add to, I know the chats gathering some things like strategic thinking and leadership development and talent. I would absolutely add adult learning theory and facilitation skills. And also if we’re really getting wonky, instructional design, instructional design is the discipline. And again, an entire world unto itself where you know how to construct a period of time and take a group of learners from one place to another basically. But it’s the structure of that. So, thanks for all of this. This is fabulous. I’m loving it. I hope you all are enjoying this as much as I am. I’m learning so much about everybody too. All right, Liz, introduce yourself and take us through your road.
ELIZABETH ROY: All right. Thank you, Jennifer. And I must say, I’m really curious to hear everyone’s self-care techniques and strategies. That’s definitely a muscle I’m still working to build, actively taking care of myself in this space. And I’m happy to share what I currently do. Kind of just to kind of introduce myself full name’s Elizabeth Roy, pronouns, she/her/hers. I go by wisdom and I’m currently the director of business development at JVC. So I have the pleasure of working directly with Jennifer and also Brian, and a lot of other incredible folks at JVC. It’s always interesting for me to share my journey and to DEI because, like many in this field, I’ve been almost everyone on this panel. My career trajectory has been the opposite of a straight and linear path. It’s more a labyrinth that was filled with tons of twists and sometimes dead ends of, but thankfully has led me to a field and a company that I’m incredibly passionate about.
So, when I graduated from Penn, I spent many years on a soul searching journey as an executive assistant because I was trying to find my place in corporate America. I didn’t want to commit to any particular path in business until I felt like I found the right fit. And I also struggled to find the right path because I knew that I wanted to build a career that was about more than acquiring material gain or our status or power ultimately wanted to find a career that would allow me to help people in some way and help me to lead the world in a better condition than what I inherited. And so many of the role that I encountered, the traditional corporate roles that I encountered were really at odds with my values and my kind of ultimate goal of the human beings.
So, in addition to not really knowing what direction I wanted to go in a corporate sense, it was also difficult for me to recognize and learn how to leverage my strengths. It really took me years to figure out how to leverage my abilities. Because as a black woman who went to predominantly white schools with kids who came from substantial wealth, very different socioeconomic backgrounds for myself and ended up working at predominantly white companies, I often had to battle imposter syndrome because I was often the only, and I felt I had to work twice as hard and be overly qualified in order to pursue any opportunities that were beyond the scope of my current role. So, unless I felt like I was perfect at what I wanted to do, I was hesitant to seek those opportunities.
And I’m also a very naturally humble person. My friends tell me on this all the time, I even struggled to promote myself on LinkedIn. You can see if you just visit my page. So, I don’t naturally advocate for myself. That’s also a muscle I’m still working to build. But thankfully, with the help of some great mentors the companies that I worked for, I learned to leverage my abilities to build relationships across an organization and use those relationships to learn about everyone’s kind of complimentary talents and strengths, and then utilize those strengths to solve complex organizational problems. I feel like that’s what I excelled in. And I didn’t realize at the time when I was an EA, but that’s part of what helped me kind of push me into the field that I am in now.
And thankfully, I had the opportunity or several opportunities to work for incredible purpose driven companies like Tom’s and Headspace. And it was actually at Headspace that I discovered my love for diversity, equity, inclusion, because shortly after I joined their people operations team, I was tasked with rebuilding and managing their dormant DEI and culture committees. It was my manager at the time who was the VP of people operations who gave me this monumental task. And at the time I said, yes, because I was taught to never say no, but deep down my imposter syndrome was an overdrive. I was freaking out because I never led committees of that magnitude for a company. I had done so informally in college, but never for a company. And I’d never been at the forefront of leadership. I’ve been used to working behind the scenes as an executive assistant.
So, I was terrified. But with a lot of research, reaching out to DEI consultants, reading a ton of different books and working with my manager, we were able to successfully recruit new members, build out charters and roadmaps of the committees, secure multi thousand dollar budgets, get executive sponsors. And the CEO is actually an active participant and sponsor for the DEI committee in particular. So it was really incredible to be able to witness each group blossom into action and collectively drive some really powerful initiatives once they had some type of structure in any resources, because before I started managing them, they had nothing. So, leading those committees was my aha moment when I realized that I wanted to pivot my career and I wanted to focus on diversity and inclusion.
And thankfully, my manager believed in my abilities. So, she promoted me into a first of its kind role at the company, that was the first DEI and employee engagement lead. And that was really exciting and a huge milestone for me, but as exciting as that was, and unfortunately came to an abrupt end because I was laid off during a restructuring effort, which was also slightly traumatizing because I felt like I’d finally found the path that I was meant to pursue. And it was taken away from me abruptly. So, as I was looking for my next opportunity, I mentioned to an HR consultant that I worked with at Headspace. And I helped her to organize different leadership development trainings for their leadership team and people managers. I mentioned to her that I wanted to continue working within the DEI field, but I did not want to work in house because I was afraid I was going to have to spend the rest of my career advocating for my role, validating my role and fighting to get proper resources.
So, she suggested that I consider working for a DEI consultancy. And thankfully she connected me with Jennifer. I’m so grateful because my initial conversation with Jennifer was so well, I ended up connecting with other folks on the team, namely Robert Bevin, Katie Mooney, and one conversation led to another. And I ended up joining the cells and business development team. And now I have the pleasure of speaking with leaders at organizations across the world trying to discuss how JDC can help them build workplaces where everyone feels welcome, valued, respected and heard, which is always something that I’ve sought to build. Those are the types of environments that I sought to build when I was an EA. I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to really express that that’s what I was working towards. So now I get to speak with these leaders.
And what I love about my current role is that I get to … It’s kind of part therapy and also part of problem solving. I get to kind of unpack the different issues that their workforce are experiencing, recommend different solutions that JDC can provide, but also give them a bit of hope. Let them know particularly the leaders who are in HR and people, operations team for whom the DEI work is kind of exclusively on their shoulders, which is shouldn’t be. It’s nice to be able to say you’re not alone. We can support you and also you should be supported and you should, this is work that should truly be cross-functional and shared across the organization. And we are happy to build that case for you so you can get the help that you need in order to work towards building more inclusive and equitable workplace. So, I consider it an honor to be able to do what I do now, but it was definitely an interesting journey to get here.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, Liz, that’s so lovely and people are really resonating and appreciating it. And I love what you just said about space holding for others. We do that regardless what hat we’re wearing and reminding people that we’re not alone and that there is, there is help to be had in so many different forms. I was wondering if you meant therapy for you or I think there would be for them?
ELIZABETH ROY: Therapy for them, yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, exactly. You might feel a little depleted at the end of the day and maybe you can jump into chat and add your self-care principles too, in terms of when you’re in that like listening role all day, and you’re literally like, it’s just so much and and yet you’re learning so much, and it’s just this like really interesting, like extremely enriching, but can also be like depleting in a good way, exhaustion in a good way hopefully, not-
ELIZABETH ROY: In a great way. Yes, as I mentioned, I’m definitely not a self-care experts. What I know is that I am, I think I might’ve mentioned this, I am deeply introverted despite being in this incredibly people centric role. So, I just know that I have to protect time for my personal space and privacy. So, once I’m done with work I have to kind of fully download and no social media, no emails out, I go dark for at least two hours every day, just so I can recharge after being on Zoom calls and other types of calls and meetings all day long. That’s primarily what I do to protect myself, but I would love to hear everyone else’s routines, strategies, techniques.
JENNIFER BROWN: Keep sharing them in chat, everybody because you all get the chat transcripts for those of you that have never been on these calls before, and it’s really worth a read. And by the way, feel free to reach out to all of us. We are all resources. So, if you want to follow up with any of us, including Liz afterwards, I know we all welcome that. So, thank you, Liz and I am so grateful to be able to work with you every day. And I know you’re just bringing so much and there’s so much ahead of you career-wise too. So that’s really exciting to ponder and be a part of your journey.
ELIZABETH ROY: Okay.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, Bernadette, to you, what would you like to share?
BERNADETTE SMITH: So, my name is Bernadette Smith, I’m CEO of Equality Institute, and I’m a speaker and trainer about helping support underrepresented folks who are your employees and your client’s customers. So, my journey starts … So, what I really am more than anything else is I’m an entrepreneur. I love being an entrepreneur. I love the energy from creative problem solving. And I started my first business about 16 years ago. And it was back in 2004 when I was living in Massachusetts, I was planning events for a nonprofit, seems like a bunch of us did some nonprofit work in our past. So, there’s plenty of that for the nonprofit.
When I had heard on the radio that there was going to be an announcement regarding marriage equality decision in the state. And so as a queer woman, I was super excited. I was like, “Wow this is a really big deal.” And Massachusetts was about to be the first state in the country to have marriage equality. So, the Supreme Court made that ruling, but there were all of these protests at the state house trying to change the constitution to ban same-sex marriage before it actually went into effect. So, spending a lot of time going to hearings, going to the state house and I decided, “This is going to happen. Someone’s got to plan the weddings and I’m going to be a gay wedding planner, might as well be me.
So I decided I was going to start a business as an activist wedding planner to help same-sex couples navigate a very heteronormative wedding industry, where only about a third of America actually supported marriage equality at the time. That was a pretty big deal. Business was great. I made the news a lot because of that. And as time went on, I ended up realizing that, “Yeah, I’m supporting these couples, that’s really cool, but I can have a much bigger impact if I help the wedding industry become more inclusive in general.” And that was right around when Twitter got invented. And I was connecting with people in the wedding and travel industry all around the world by Twitter. And they were saying things to me like, “What’s the difference between a gay wedding and a straight wedding?”
So, I realized that I needed to create some content, some curriculum around this. I had a mentor who really guided me and suggested that I build this other business about the educational piece. And so I did, and I ended up writing three books, all about LGBTQ inclusion in the wedding industry, how to be inclusive in travel and as time went on, I had moved at this point from Boston to New York, had a different business coach who essentially said to me, “You’re bigger than this.” So, kind of similar to what Jen said, “I’m bigger than this.” And also when I moved to New York, all of a sudden I was planning these quarter of a million dollar weddings. And I didn’t feel like an activist wedding planner anymore. I just felt like a luxury wedding planner in over my head.
Definitely, not loving the vibe of, of the industry and I didn’t want to do it anymore. And so I started to evolve my business away from weddings and eventually away from LGBTQ and really becoming a diversity and inclusion consultant more broadly and speaking to people in other industries. So, it’s been an evolution, but to all the imposter syndrome comments that I saw in the chat, Holy cow, what a transition it was, evolving from helping hospitality companies, whether it’s catering companies or whomever and even a major hotel chains realizing that they were being exclusive in their marketing, being exclusive in their language, being exclusive in their policies. It was a big deal changing from all of that to going after much bigger companies and other industries. And I felt way over my head and I really had to do a lot of self care meditation, get business coaches who really helped me figure out how to own this new space.
And really, I did go through a professional identity crisis while I was on that journey. But it’s been a few years now since I made that pivot and things are great because what I did realize was that I was helping small businesses and businesses in the hospitality industry, do a lot of the same things I help big companies with today. We were talking about systemic change. We were talking about training employees. We were talking about changing the system to be inclusive instead of exclusive. So, the skills are very transferable just on a much bigger scale. That’s been my journey, but one quick thing about the imposter syndrome and recovering, now I talk about this a bit in my work, and probably it’s only been about a year since I started telling the story about my wedding background.
Because I kind thought it was people would perceive it as shallow and all of that. And who are you kind of thing? That’s how I felt. And as I was doing a training yesterday, I found myself, again, covering that background. I was telling a story about my divorce and how I covered that at work. But, I also covered my background and I still do it. And it’s a journey for all of us to figure out how to show up authentically, even the person who does diversity for a living still.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh yeah. I was just reflecting, Bernadette, I didn’t talk about being an artist or a singer ever. And I know, Brian, you probably have some thoughts on that, but boy, that is the furthest thing from what the business world as I understood it really respects and yet, all the goodies that come to us from being really good in that world are so salient, so important, so relevant. But the problem is we have to deal with the perception and meet people where they’re at and where they’re not. Yeah,
BERNADETTE SMITH: Yeah, exactly.
BRIAN MCCOMAK: Absolutely. I just want to say, we have to then give a nod back to Yemi. I’m falling in love with being authentically me. Yemi was here last week, and Bernadette, I want to make sure I put it back to you just to see if there’s anything else to add there, but I’ve spent a lot of time just saying, “You know what? I’m going to be the best version of me I can.” And if it doesn’t work for the company, then it’s not my place and I’m totally okay with that. I’ve learned that I’m going to be okay. And Bernadette, I think you’ve learned you’re going to be okay. You’ve you’ve created doors and opened those doors for yourself.
BERNADETTE SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I feel like I was made for this year. I’ve had to figure out a lot of personal development stuff since I made the pivot because being an entrepreneur is a rocky road. There are lots of … I mean, forget about the DEI piece. Being an entrepreneur itself is just full of challenges. And when you’re selling to big companies, the sales cycle is really long and there’s just a lot of uncertainty. And so figuring out the self care for that it really made me feel very much prepared for this year. And not just because I’m a lesbian with lots of camping gear and non-perishable goods in the basement. And like I was ready for this year.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my goodness. Another stereotype I do not fit. I love that. I love the diversity within the diversity, so good. That’s so great. Oh my goodness, we’re almost out of time. This is so hard. Just so much to explore. I guess, thank you all. I’m so grateful to all of you. I think people loved this. It seems like we’re onto something, Brian, his needs to be maybe our killer thing. And I hope this format was helpful for everybody. It was just a little taste, but you talk about the variety in our field and all the ways we’ve leveraged everything. I like to say, nothing was wasted. I think about all the different mishaps and roles that I didn’t like, even if something just teaches you that you don’t want to do it ever again, is information.
Or noticing that, “I thought I wanted to do all of this, but I just want to do a piece of this,” I did. I didn’t necessarily want to be a D&I researcher. I wanted to be a facilitator and a keynoter. So, there’s nuances to the work that I think over the course of our lives, we kind of get more and more focused and we rule things out as much as we rule things in and we get really specific. And if you do strengths finder, things like that follow your strengths, thinking about we can’t be good at everything and but then it’s incumbent on us of course, to surround ourselves with those of us who can provide the complimentary stuff to what our zone of genius is.
And the D&I work needs a lot of different complimentary skills and mindsets I think, to really be done well, there’s some of us that are fabulous storytellers, there are some of us that are data heads. There are some of us that are amazing strategists. And I never believe that I’m the whole package. But I do think about when I represent the work, making sure that I know the resources in each of these arenas while letting my light shine unapologetically. And so Brian, as my co-host any final thoughts you’d like to make?
BRIAN MCCOMAK: Oh my gosh, I have an entire another hour vital-
JENNIFER BROWN: I know.
BRIAN MCCOMAK: Fortunately, there’s going to be a part two and maybe there will be a part three and four. I just want to say that this work is so important to all of us on this call and we give a lot of ourselves to this work and we’re also all in it together. That is in the self care, we can lean on each other, how do we find our way in this journey? How do we open doors? How do we get experience? So, the five panelists here, were all here to be helped, have helped you in any way we can. But also there’s another 100 plus people on this call, we’re all here to help each other. So, if you’re having those moments where you’re feeling overwhelmed or you’re not sure about the next step, reach out to someone within the community, because this is an amazing group of humans.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Lett’s unmute ourselves and thank the panelists today for joining us. Thank you.
MITA MALLICK: Thank you, everyone.
- Accessing our Infinite Power: Change Agency and Abundance with “In Your Power” author Dr. Sharon Melnick
- NASA’s DEI Journey with OD Specialist Diane Cain and JBC’s Adrienne Lawrence
- Doing the Work and Doing it Right: Deconstructing DEI with Author, Speaker and Consultant Lily Zheng
- Building the Damn Thing: Takeover Episode featuring VC and Author Kathryn Finney interviewed by WatchHerWork Founder, Denise Hamilton
- Through Thick and Thin: Employers Supporting Employees Through Health Crises with Cancer Channel Author Sarah McDonald