Surrounded by my second-grade classmates, their voices singing with excitement about an upcoming birthday party, I had never felt more alone.
We often hear platitudes about the innocence of youth. We say that kids can be so honest. Kids can be so uninhibited. Kids can be so idealistic.
But kids—even on accident—can be so cruel.
We were at recess, giggling over a joke long since forgotten. I was happy and carefree; I belonged. Then, one classmate started talking about her upcoming birthday party. Everyone was excited about having received their invitations.
I had not received one.
“Jennifer,” I said. “I didn’t receive an invitation.”
She replied, “Oh, I’m sorry, but my mom said I can’t invite any Black people. She said something is wrong with their skin; it’s ugly, and they are dirty.”
Time stopped. Suddenly, I was different and I was no longer accepted. I was a little African-American girl surrounded by children who didn’t look like me.
At the time, I didn’t know how to express my feelings, but looking back, I now know I felt embarrassed, ostracized, and degraded. As an African-American child living in a predominately white Alabama suburb, I was an obvious minority, but it had never mattered. That day, for the first time, I had been excluded because of the color of my skin. My life was forever changed.
Decades of experiences and occupations later, fate lead to me a position where I was surrounded by people and work centered on diversity and inclusion. No longer the obvious minority, I would come to meet people like Adrienne Trimble, a leader and consummate professional whose dedication to serving others has impacted lives in truly meaningful ways—including my own. It was through my encounters with her, and others like her, that I would come to understand the “why” behind that painful playground confrontation and subsequently, “why diversity matters.”
A career champion for diversity, today, Adrienne is the president and CEO of the National Minority Supplier Development Council, an organization known for thought leadership that results in developing minority suppliers for corporate opportunities that center on delivering solutions in such areas as future and emerging trends—artificial intelligence, for example. Adrienne also leads the diversity and inclusion initiatives of Toyota Motor North America, where she serves as General Manager, Diversity & Inclusion.
But it was Adrienne’s tenure as a receptionist in the HR department at a Cincinnati hospital that paved the way for her work in diversity and inclusion.
“I remember there was a part of the HR department called employee relations, where every time there was a problem with an employee, all of the managers went to see this one person,” Adrienne says. “She was responsible for interpreting the policies and how they would be applied and how the employees would be disciplined. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I want to be in that position, because that is the position that ensures everyone is treated fairly and equitably and everyone gets a fair chance … So for me, it became very personal.”
That personal connection has helped create a lens through which Adrienne views and defines diversity.
“For me, diversity is the process of understanding, acknowledging and valuing the differences of people and perspectives, and optimizing those to achieve a stated result. It is bringing all of those different variances into the picture so you are gathering different viewpoints and different perspectives.”
Those variances relate to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, cultures, veterans, disabilities, religion and age, for example.
But diversity is nothing without inclusion, without caring for that little girl who looks different from everyone else. It’s making sure she is not only invited to the party, but that she’s given a place at the table to eat the birthday cake.
For Adrienne, diversity and inclusion go hand-in-hand, and she warns against focusing on one aspect in exchange for the other. She encourages everyone to understand what diversity and inclusion are really about. Only then can we leverage them to achieve the best results, both in business and in life.
Quoting DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, she says, “Diversity is inviting different people to the dance; inclusion is making sure they dance together.”
The Art of the Dance
If there is one person who knows about bringing different people together “for the dance,” it is Chris McSwain, community engagement officer for Communities Foundation of Texas (CFT), one of the largest community foundations in the nation, that manages more than 1,000 charitable funds for families, companies, foundations and nonprofits.
Chris helps cultivate relationships with communities across the Metroplex—between religious institutions, communities of color, elected officials and more—in an effort to engage a broad mix of people who want to give back. Because of both her direct involvement with North Texas Giving Day, CFT’s largest fundraising initiative, and her more traditional marketing role, through which she communicates CFT’s efforts to partner in philanthropy for families, individuals, companies and organizations, Chris believes diversity matters now more than ever.
“We are more connected now than we’ve ever been. I’m able to engage with people in a way that I might not have been before because there wasn’t the technology to do so,” she says. “I think [in order] to operate fully in the world, you can’t ignore diversity, we can’t … meet, excel or progress without embracing it, understanding it and giving it room in our lives.”
As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Craig Perry feels encouraged by the progress he sees. He recalls a time, years ago, when people threw rocks at him and a male friend while walking on the beach.
“I think [being] honest is much easier today than it was 30 years ago,” he says. “People who know [my partner] Tom and me have made the assumption [about our relationship] because any time we are out, we are together. It is never a question.”
Craig sees diversity and inclusion as a conduit for progress. “Everybody has something to contribute. If you’re not accepted, then no one is going to accept your contributions.”
Sometimes, if people haven’t experienced many diverse environments, they haven’t experienced the benefits. But diversity fosters selflessness, curiosity, empathy, communication and collaboration. Being around people who aren’t like us encourages us to explore other perspectives and consider the world outside of ourselves.That curiosity, communication and collaboration are assets, in business and in life, is obvious. Diversity, then, is an asset. That is pretty obvious too. The challenge lies in motivating individuals and companies to embrace this philosophy. After all, it is difficult to understand something you have never experienced.
When discussing diversity and inclusion, some view any effort to include others as merely meeting a quota or issuing obligatory check marks in boxes. Adrienne warns against judging an organization’s approach to diversity and inclusion. Instead, she believes in meeting people where they are; everyone has to start somewhere. She explains that at times that means showing that these initiatives are mutually beneficial. In doing so, those once wary to the ideologies and realities regarding diversity and inclusion are encouraged to make incremental changes and are motivated by the benefits they see. This approach opens the door to addressing sensitive issues and increasing the opportunities to achieve win-win outcomes.
“I can’t change your heart, but I can change your leadership behaviors as they relate to the organization’s principles,” she says. “Most organizations want to make sure they are treating their customers and employees with respect and allowing them to be productive constituents of their environment. Diversity and inclusion is at the core of that. If you’re truly going to be respectful of other people, you’re going to have to have the principles of inclusion embedded [in the company culture], so that you are welcoming and open to those ideas that are different from your own.”
Just as I experienced a truly defining moment as a child, now, as a woman of color, I’ve come face-to-face with organizations that maintain varying degrees of understanding about diversity and inclusion: those that need more education to appreciate its benefits and those that embrace the discussions and take action.
Where I was once a child excluded from a party, I have been an adult excluded from corporate conversations and decisions. My ideas have been dismissed only to have them stolen by a male who later took credit for my work. By the same token, I have worked with organizations that understand why diversity matters in that it implores us to take action for the benefit of others while valuing the knowledge embedded in our differences.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with organizations like Hilti North America, where diversity matters to every aspect of the company’s culture. As President and CEO Avi Kahn explains, Hilti takes a multi-step approach to its diversity and inclusion initiative, where it places an emphasis on the three Gs: global, generation and gender.
“We decided to take three [things] that we believe will make a real impact on our business, that we could also measure consistently around the world,” Avi explains. “We are a global company, and we believe that a mixture of cultures, backgrounds and nationalities will lead to more dynamic teams with a higher quality of debates and discussions and, in the end, higher quality of decisions.”
Avi continues, “For us, generational diversity also means offering the right benefits and the right job environment for people in their various stages of development and making sure that regardless of your time with us, regardless of your age, you feel that your experience and what you bring to the table is worthwhile.”
With regard to gender, Avi explains that Hilti, a company grounded in the construction industry, is excited about supporting women.
“We believe increasing our gender diversity will make us better,” he says. “Today, more than 24 percent of our employees are female, and 13 percent of our females are in leadership positions. Almost a third of new team members that joined us last year were female. We are making progress.”
From the Mouths of Babes
As corporations and various institutions grapple with the best approach to the diversity and inclusion conversation, senior high-school student Vaibhavi Hemasundar believes an untapped resource exists right under their noses: young people. A first-generation American whose parents emigrated to the United States, Vaibhavi offers a genuine perspective.
“We visit family in India every couple of years. And I think growing up between two countries has made me more cognizant of how lucky I am to have all of my basic needs met,” she says. “Coming from a diverse background, I’m aware that I have access to so many different resources, and that makes me want to help others. I’ve seen other people struggle, so I’m very passionate about helping them.”
Vaibhavi believes discussing diversity is especially important in America, simply because our population is diverse.
“I think that no matter what you’re talking about, whether it’s a business or whether it’s a school or a neighborhood, you need people from different backgrounds [involved] in making decisions,” she says. “It’s just the moral thing to do. And I think that it promotes this cycle of positivity. When everyone in your community is healthy and when everyone in your community is happy, they also have the tools in place to work their hardest and then they can make other people healthy and happy.”
Despite her age, she feels a degree of responsibility for getting involved now. “Just being connected and having access to quick information gives me the sense that I don’t have to be older to make a difference,” she says. “It’s easier to speak up now.”
She challenges her peers to adopt a similar mindset. “You have no right to complain if you don’t do anything to shape the future,” she says.
Much like Vaibhavi, Theresa Biggs understands the value of addressing diversity and inclusion within the scope of America’s youth. As the Plano Independent School District (PISD) director of advanced academics, Theresa is responsible for the district’s Gifted program from kindergarten to 12th grade, and she supports the work of its Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. She also leads the district’s Commitment to Equity initiative.
“We are a diverse community, and we’re a diverse country, and if you don’t acknowledge, accept and celebrate the diversity in our community, then I don’t think you can move forward.”
According to Theresa, a few years ago, PISD took a hard look at the participation rate in its advanced courses with respect to minority groups. Their findings presented reasons for pause.
“Unfortunately, if you looked at some of our advanced courses, you didn’t see the richness of our student community represented. So we decided to get very serious about changing that and about changing that narrative,” she explains. “We had to disrupt some narratives that were out there to get students to understand that they could do this work, and that there’s a benefit to doing this work.”
A passionate educator, Theresa attributes her current zest to her childhood. As her family struggled to make ends meet, it often dictated their decisions and experiences, and, eventually, led to her delayed university enrollment.
“I just have a heart for this work,” she says. “I see myself in a lot of these kids’ faces, and I don’t want them to get into their early 30s before they decide [they] want to go to college or find the career they really want. I don’t want the system to determine their future. I want them to be well-educated enough that when they make their decision about the next steps, it’s their decision. It’s not something that they’re forced to do because the system let them down and they didn’t have the tools necessary to move forward in a direction they really wanted.”
Looking ahead, Adrienne wants individuals to realize that diversity and inclusion work is a journey and an evolution. We must make sure inclusion is intentional, and make systemic changes to integrate it into those business processes, and the community. Adrienne identifies fear as the major roadblock to success and reminds us that we must meet people where they are and bring them along in a manner that helps them overcome that fear.
Like Adrienne, Soraya Mangal identifies fear as a key factor in the diversity and inclusion conversation. As a Muslim immigrant, she acknowledges the power fear has in keeping individuals from reaching their full potential; however, she believes it is important that individuals combat that fear by realizing their strengths, particularly the strengths that manifest in their differences.
“What if we celebrate our differences and show love and compassion and understand how we can build each other up by learning about each other and by learning how our differences can be our strengths?” she asks. “How beautiful this world would be if we just saw the beauty in our differences instead of saying, ‘Oh gosh, someone is different from me, so I’m fearful!’”
Soraya recalls her experiences when she arrived in America in 1984. One of her fondest memories is of her ESL teacher who not only taught her the English language, but also helped her realize the truth about those differences.
“She held my hand. She wiped my tears. She treated me like I was no different,” Soraya says. “She helped me understand that the only difference I had was that I needed to increase my education a little. My demographics or where I came from, my sex, gender and religion made no difference.”
Soraya would go on to excel in school and in her career, all while moving from
Georgia to California to Virginia and, finally, to Texas. She’s now a mother of three and Vice President/Banking Center Manager for LegacyTexas Bank. She even picked up a southern drawl along the way.
“I’m as diverse as they come,” Soraya says. “And I am optimistic about the future. We are a work in progress, but I’m hopeful there will be more discussions about what makes us different. We all have strengths to bring to the table. It is just a matter of listening to each other and including each other in decision making. Only then can we build a world that lives up to our potential.”
Regardless of where we are or what we are doing, Adrienne agrees that diversity and inclusion is paramount to our very existence—that, at its core, diversity is about humanity and treating everyone with decency, respect, and kindness. Diversity teaches us to have compassion for others, regardless of their backgrounds, preferences, physical appearance, and abilities. It is having a heart for a little girl who stands in the minority, and for the child who invites her to the party despite her mother, because it is important that everyone is included. Diversity matters because humanity matters. Understanding that is life-changing.