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For those who have visited my website, you’ve seen my leadership credo—Your culture is your brand—imprinted in the header. For me, the connection between diversity and company culture has been on a near continual thought loop for weeks. 

I cannot recall another time in my adult life when dichotomous opinions and emotions have pitched as feverishly: either right or wrong, left or right, with seemingly deep entrenchment and incredulation at differing ideologies. We’ve stopped listening and seeking to understand others, instead choosing echo chambers that support our point of view. “Cancel culture” has become a thing, and I wonder if the business community is feeding or quelling this dynamic? Are you conscious and intentional about this dynamic within your company? 

Leadership Imperatives for Broadening DEI

It’s impossible to compartmentalize what’s happening in our society from what’s happening in our businesses. Human experiences flow between and influence our personal and professional lives affecting our interactions with friends, family, colleagues, and eventually, our customers. And thus, the values and daily examples that are the foundation of our company cultures set the tone that influences daily discourse, positively or negatively, within our businesses. And, this is how diversity and inclusion, when core to company values and embraced widely, enhance culture and business performance.

Many companies have worked to create meaningful change in their organizations with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI). DiversityInc has assessed companies’ diversity since 2001, with Marriott, Hilton, ADP, Mastercard, Accenture, and Abbott routinely ranking in the top 10. These influential, high-performing companies are relevant examples of my theory that diversity, culture, and brand reputation are connected, and I perceive that small and midsize businesses can make similar strides even faster than large organizations. DEI programs require time and resources, but when implemented with authenticity, they can help businesses of all sizes thrive and grow. A 2016 McKinsey and Company study found that companies in the top quarter for gender or racial and ethnic diversity were more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians. 

Yes! Let’s work harder and faster to build companies that represent our communities and those we serve. In my view, though this is an opportunity for “Yes, and…”. Let’s challenge ourselves to think broadly about what it means to have a diverse and inclusive company. Operating with the principle that an inclusive company is a more effective company, how do our organizations cultivate greater inclusiveness? Are our definitions of DEI broad enough to create the organizations we desire with the greatest potential? 

History, Values and Tenets for Building Better Cultures

Allow me to digress a bit. I was born in 1968, “the year that shattered America‘. It was a seismic year in American history that saw the extension of the Civil Rights Act; the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. which set off deadly cross-country riots; police and anti-war protesters clashed violently; police and Illinois guardsman clubbed and tear-gassed protestors outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago on live TV; Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated; and Nixon won the presidency by just 0.7 percent of the popular vote. The status quo in the U.S. was challenged then, as it is today. The comparisons are considerable. Reflections on history are helpful to provide context, and hopefully, we reflect and evolve for the better and for all. 

As we face today’s turbulent times, we need thoughtful and strong leaders more than ever. My aim is to challenge business leaders to be intentional in the role we play. According to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, corporate America could play a key role in bridging partisan politics, with more people saying they trust CEOs (61%) over government (53%). It’s our responsibility to create diverse, inclusive work experiences that prioritize and value multiple dimensions that more critically and objectively solve problems—for our employees, our customers, and our investors—thereby exposing our teams to environments where the point is not to be right but rather to do the right things. In other words, the current fraught times, the doubling down on creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, and business’s influence on the “right or wrong” public, political, and media discourse are converging. CEOs, management teams, and boards can be a positive influence, and our employees, customers, and communities are watching and hopeful.

The agenda for business leaders is bigger than that of the common dimensions of DEI efforts alone. To be clear, matters of gender or racial and ethnic diversity are table stakes and must be included in a healthy business environment. And, I assert that there’s a great opportunity to expand the definition of inclusivity to create authentic, healthy company cultures. Let’s widen the tent to be inclusive of socioeconomic circumstances, personal and professional experiences, faiths, ideas, and politics—as well as gender, race, and ethnicity—because it’s critical to a strong culture and therefore good for your stakeholders. It upholds the tenet that businesses can do well while doing good, thus building an esteemed employer and market brand. 

In Harvard Business Review’s recent article, The Forgotten Dimension of Diversity, Columbia Business School professor Paul Ingram makes a compelling case that diversity of social class is as important to consider in the business context as race and gender. He and his colleagues found that “U.S. workers from lower social-class origins are 32% less likely to become managers than are people from higher origins. This disadvantage is even greater than that experienced by women compared with men (27%) or Blacks compared with whites (25%).” This research suggests that if businesses explicitly recognized social class as an important target of DEI efforts, they’d potentially increase the pool of capable managers in their companies by a third. 

I am convinced through my own experiences that diversity of thoughts, experiences, and viewpoints if shared in a company culture that values inclusivity, authenticity, and respectful debate, leads to better solutions and company performance. One of the most formative activities my partners and I undertook in our first days at FastBridge Learning was to proactively articulate our values and the type of company we wanted to build. I’ll never forget sitting around the second-hand conference table in a tiny room that doubled as an office supply closet, copy room, and kitchen, discussing the qualities of culture and values that were important to us. While we didn’t set DEI targets, our shared values led us towards building a company culture based on respect, curiosity, truth, transparency, and innovation that required inclusivity at its foundation. I’m proud our values attracted talent that made up a diverse team. We grew due to the men, women, and transgender; Asians, Blacks, Latinxs, and Whites representing five continents contributing to our success. We had more work to do towards having a greater representation of women and POC at the most senior levels, which gave me continuous motivation to leverage my position, experience, and time to elevate, celebrate, and support women and minorities to aspire to promotions and ascension to management as we grew the company. 

Less obvious yet intrinsic to our culture was an appreciation for a diversity of ideas, thoughts, experiences, opinions, and viewpoints. As CEO, I desired and encouraged a broad and balanced set of perspectives to critically and creatively consider how we would solve problems and better meet the needs of educators and students. As a K-12 education company, it was critical to understand that not every child’s learning experience mirrored my experience or that of my leaders; not every educator’s experience is shared. Understanding diversity in teaching and learning across demographic, socioeconomic, political, and geographic factors are critical in creating an excellent education company that aims to improve learning outcomes for all students. 

While our approach wasn’t flawless, homogeneity of ideas and vitriol were discouraged. Groupthink and cancel culture were anathemas to our success. We made better decisions (big and small), better user experiences, and a more effective product. We knew our diverse team and inclusive culture, in the broadest definitions of such, made FastBridge better. 

During our scale-up, the company was ranked as the No. 2 fastest-growing private company in the Twin Cities in 2018 (year 3 for us) by the Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal, and a 2019 Top Workplace by the StarTribune. These are artifacts in my mind of valuing inclusivity and nurturing a culture that respects the diversity of people, ideas, perspectives, experiences, thoughts, and convictions, cultivated trust and loyalty, and contributed significantly to our market brand and growth.  

How can you “expand the tent” on diversity and inclusivity within your company?

  • Ask questions to critically and honestly evaluate and assess your culture related to the definitions of DEI. Look deeper and broader at all the known and lesser-known dimensions of diversity to expand the tent. Does your culture nurture a diversity of gender, race, ethnicity, and social class, as well as a diversity of experiences, opinions, ideas, and convictions in its people, structure, operations, and decision making processes? 
  • Reflect on the values that are at the heart of your culture and if they support inclusivity, the tone and tenor of the work environment, employee and customer interactions, brand, and company performance. Are your values and expectations clear and demonstrated? 
  • Assess and determine how you and your leaders can intentionally promote a broad definition of diversity and inclusivity within your company and thereby positively impact your culture, company performance, and brand.

Given the unique times, we are living in today, broadening the tent of diversity and inclusivity is timely and necessary not only to be the trusted stewards of a thriving society but also to create the healthiest environment for our teams in a thriving business. Leaders are being evaluated on new dimensions and need to embrace this new responsibility with intent and rigor. If you agree with my tenet that culture and brand are inexorably linked, now is the time to be intentional with the important role that diversity and inclusivity play in a thriving culture that also brings positive brands to our customers and communities.