Jennifer Brown: Bringing the Business Case for Diversity

The 2016 National Conference & Business Fair kicks off next week in Orlando, and Jennifer Brown will set a tone for the conference when she keynotes the Women’s Enterprise Forum on Monday afternoon. Her talk is focused on diversity and inclusion as the great growth enablers in business.

For Brown, founder and CEO of WBENC-Certified WBE Jennifer Brown Consulting for more than 10 years, this talk is personal. As a member of the LGBT community, she has confronted the decision to come out hundreds of times in her life, and has dedicated her life to building inclusive workplaces for all.

Watch her TEDx talk about finding her voice.

WBENC sat down to discuss the ways diversity and inclusion can ensure companies retain the best talent, resonate with more customers, and set the right foundations for growth.

Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

Jennifer Brown Consulting works with Fortune 500 companies every day to ensure sustainable diversity and inclusion practices. How can WBEs make use of those lessons?

For founders and CEOs of any size company, I always say one thing about diversity and inclusion: Share your values every day. It’s not enough to talk about diversity once a year. At JBC, we teach leaders to check in with their teams consistently so they know and understand where you come from, and believe in your commitment to the issue.

Whether you’re leading one person, 15 people, or hundreds of employees, we need talk about what our values are and what they mean to us. Diversity starts there: What’s important to you as a business leader? Does your team know your values? Do you make time to check in and share the reasons behind those values?

As female founders, we have faced particular headwinds related to our gender. For many of us, that may be why we get certified by WBENC and attend events like the National Conference & Business Fair—we have a shared story.

Yet it’s so important to declare often and authentically to everyone that works with you, not just your team, but also your ecosystem of clients, colleagues, and collaborators, what being WBENC-Certified means to you. Why is the WBENC network—and WBENC Certification—something that makes you better at what you do? That’s when we really start embracing diversity and inclusion.  

Do you ever feel like those answers are assumed? Have you dealt with assumptions like that?

Yes. Especially in fast-paced workplaces, we assume values are understood, so we don’t ask—and we don’t make the time to tell. At JBC, our mission is to build inclusive work environments where everyone is Welcomed, Valued, Respected, and HeardSM. Through our WVRH model, we help our clients actively work through assumptions and evaluate bias across the board. Bias creeps in no matter what, and we have to be mindful of diversity of all kinds.

While a company might be great on gender inclusion, that doesn’t mean we are true champions of all aspects of inclusion. We have to consider inclusion of people of color, people with disabilities, and the LGBT community. We have the simultaneous opportunity of being woman business owners, AND allies to others with different diversity dimensions.

As a business owner myself, I have a lot of women on my team, and I’m proud of that. But we’ve also been intentional about having generational and cultural diversity. And I am constantly thinking about seeking talent for our bench. It’s never perfect, and I learn something every day. But I believe truly inclusive leaders are mindful of their own challenges.

Once you’ve put a voice to your values and you’ve broken down any assumptions or standing bias, where do you go from there?

According to research, a majority of employees still feel like they have to “cover” or hide parts of their identity when they are at work. Yet we’re also living in an age where we can’t afford to have people cover. It costs three times someone’s annual salary to have them walk out the door due to micro-inequities they may be facing. By the time you know there is a problem, it’s too late.

Instead of waiting for that to happen, you can make diversity and inclusion a part of your daily goals and organizational leadership. It’s not extra work. It becomes part of your daily conversations, and it leads to more meaningful expectations with your team—and your clients.

When we encounter someone in our company who is not being inclusive, we have the opportunity to discuss the difference of intent versus impact. We teach leaders how to discuss the difference between the well-intended joke and the impact it could or did have on the audience. 

We work with leaders in our WVRH model to make goals and expectations around inclusion a part of the daily reality through one-on-one meetings, performance reviews, recruitment efforts, supply chain choices, and interactions with key stakeholders.

And I can guarantee your clients are evaluating the diversity you are putting in front of them. Before you send five white people to present without thinking about the audience, let’s slow down and think about WVRH. Evaluate the bias you may be presenting and your potential blindspots.

Finally, this conversation is still relevant. The nine largest tech companies released their diversity numbers a couple years ago, in the spirit of transparency. We saw representation in the single digits for Latino and African American talent; it was in the teens for gender. I don’t have to tell you how grossly misaligned this is with our general population. The numbers have proven stubborn, not changing year over year, notwithstanding training.

But take heart: The landscape is shifting. Target made a statement welcoming transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender. Salesforce has spent $3M to close the gender pay gap, which stands at 20%. Companies are pulling out of North Carolina because of bills that legislate inequality.

Even at times like these, it is always the right time to think about diversity and inclusion. We have to move forward together. Inclusion needs to include everyone.


Posted on June 17, 2016 .