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Podcast: Dr. Alexandria White: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion — and Business

Dr. Alexandria White, Director of Diversity for ReBoot Accel and adjunct faculty at the University of Mississippi’s School of Education

Dr. Alexandria White, Director of Diversity, ReBoot Accel; Adjunct Faculty, University of Mississippi’s School of Education

While the terms diversity, equity and inclusion are not new, the movement – across society, institutions, and businesses – gained extraordinary momentum this year. Obviously, this push for increased understanding, awareness, and action was greatly inspired by George Floyd’s death. It has grown from there.

But what, exactly, does diversity, equity, and inclusion – often called D.E.I. – actually look like? What tangible steps can business leaders take to integrate the principles not as one-off projects, but rather on going standard operating procedures? And what might those changes mean – for immediate adopters and companies slow on the uptake – for any business’ ability to compete and win in a next-generation workplace?

Dr. Alexandria White works with organizations to create more diverse and inclusive workplaces. She serves as Director of Diversity for ReBoot Accel and as an adjunct faculty in the University of Mississippi’s School of Education. Dr. White has worked in retail banking, leadership, community activism, diversity planning and higher education and founded S.A.M.S. – Student Affairs MomS –  the largest online community for mothers who work on college campuses. As you’ll hear, she brings deep perspective, experience, and actionable tips to the conversation.

Transcript: Dr. Alexandria White: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion — and Business

Chris Riback: Alex, thank you for your time. I appreciate your joining me.

Dr. Alexandria White: Thank you. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Chris Riback: Me, too. I’ve been looking forward to this as well. We should start, I think, with apologies at what is, surely, the most obvious for you. But it is probably important for the audience to understand and me to understand and make sure we all are speaking and understanding the same terms. What is diversity, equity, and inclusion? I say the words. I know the words individually. What does that mean together? What does it mean as a business strategy?

Dr. Alexandria White: I thought about, given the whole academic version, but let’s go with analogies. I love analogies. My grandpa used to give me analogies all the time.

Chris Riback: Let’s go with what your grandfather would recommend, absolutely.

Dr. Alexandria White: Let’s go with something that we do every day, and that’s eat. My analogy is going to be focused around food.

Chris Riback: You have my attention.

Dr. Alexandria White: Diversity is me inviting everyone that is listening to my home for dinner. That’s diversity. Everyone, every listener. Inclusion is making sure that all of you eat. Belonging is asking or getting a preference for what kind of dish or cuisine that you would like. Diversity is inviting everybody to dinner. Inclusion, let’s make sure everyone gets something to eat. Belonging is that part of making it specific to what everyone’s taste palate would enjoy. That is how I break it down for clients and people who just want a simple term. We throw it around so much, right, Chris?

Chris Riback: Yes, we do.

Dr. Alexandria White: We’re throwing around these terms: diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging. Let’s just break down that barrier, so that more of us can learn and build and be more inclusive of one another.

Chris Riback: To the point that you were just making, I said, diversity, equity, and inclusion. You talked about belonging. Is belonging a synonym for equity? Is it an additional concept that I ought to add into the three-word mix and make it a four-word mix?

Dr. Alexandria White: There’s different versions of that. Equity, in regards with the dinner analogy, is the continuous serving of what you need of your dish or your cuisine or your drink of choice. That’s equity. Belonging is making sure that we have something for you. That equity is we’re going to continue to serve up whatever you like, Chris. Is it a rose? Is it some sparkling water? We’re going to continuously to serve that up.

What I mean by that in a professional setting is there is not a diversity finish line for companies or organizations or universities, because we are continuously in the process of being equitable to everyone involved. That’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

Chris Riback: The analogy or the metaphor holds, I would assume, as well, because even at a dinner party, at one point, one might feel completely satiated. I’ve had enough, boy. Great meal. Thanks, Alex. Got to go. You know what? Pretty soon, 12 hours, six hours, 24 hours, I’m hungry again. To carry out your metaphor, I assume, you’re never completely full.

Dr. Alexandria White: Never. A lot of people are, “We’ve just done this. We’ve just initiated or completed this new project or this new initiative to help an underrepresented group. Are we done?” No, we’re not. In order to continue to be more equitable, it’s a process. It’s continuously. There’s no finish line. It’s okay, because we are all in this together. That is my passion, Chris. That is what I hope to continue to give out to the masses and to people that I interact with, that while this could be another checkbox, it’s got to be more than a moment. It’s got to be a movement.

Chris Riback: Alex, I understand why I need to eat. Why do we need diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging as a business strategy?

Dr. Alexandria White: I think, one, it’s a moral case and a business case. I’m going to start with moral case.

Chris Riback: Tell me about both of them, please.

Dr. Alexandria White: The moral case is personal impacts professional. Things that happen to you at home with your partner in the morning, Chris, it can reflect your work throughout the day. That can be numerous things. When I talk about to companies, what’s the business case? Why do we even need diversity right now? It isn’t going to be impactful. Yes, because companies are made up of people. There are intersectionalities. They are more than just a number. They are more than just a memo. They are more than just things that produce items for your company.

Once companies understand that the personal impacts the professional, then we start talking about the business case. The business case can be found in many reports, from BCG to the Deloitte to McKinsey, that diversity and being inclusive can help and improve innovation. Innovation is perpetuated and motivated and propelled when there are different voices in the room. Different voices bring different perspectives. Different perspectives fuel innovation. Innovation fuels productivity and profit.

I think what’s crazy is that you just sent out to some of your readers, Chris, the Morgan Stanley Second Annual VC report. I actually want to quote some things that I just read within 24 hours about how 70 venture capital firms. I want to repeat that, 70 venture capital firms. They surveyed. 75% of those 70 venture capital firms strongly agreed that it is possible to have an investment strategy which brings profit when you intentionally invest in women and people of color and underrepresented groups, because it maximizes returns. That just came out.

Chris Riback: It wasn’t that great data. To your point, these are folks, their business is about making investments that deliver outsized returns. If they can’t do that, they’re out of business. Those data were extraordinary.

Dr. Alexandria White: Let’s not forget, it was a 55% increase from last year. This is 2020. They did this survey in 2020. It’s a 55%-increase from last year. That’s my whole point right there. That’s the business case wrapped up neatly in a bow. That is your moral case and that is your business case when it comes to why diversity, equity, and inclusion matters.

Chris Riback: Based off of what you just said, and particularly, your note that those data went up, the sentiment went up in 2020, and we know that this has been the most extraordinary awful, insightful, eye-opening, terrible of years. It’s been everything. Is it a trend based off of what’s happened this year? Or, is this a sustainable business movement?

Dr. Alexandria White: Chris, I have been doing these 15 years, ever since from community activism from the South Side of Chicago to Indiana, to overseas. This seems like a seminal moment. This really seems like a seminal moment.

Chris Riback: Why?

Dr. Alexandria White: I’m getting that a lot. It starts with what I’ve seen. I started doing this work being intentional with doing this work with educating myself and making sure that I have the tools and making sure that I’m able to give this content and create this content for people, so that we can embrace differences. That started in 2013 with the acquittal of George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin.

That was my seminal moment. That was my impactful moment. How can I use my voice, my energy, and my strength to be more inclusive and to make companies and organizations more inclusive? It’s seven years later. This time, it feels different. It really feels different. Let me give you some examples.

Chris Riback: Yes, please.

Dr. Alexandria White: Chronologically, we have the pandemic. It started becoming more and more in February, March. Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, KY, and George Floyd, back to back to back. Because I work in this space, because I am grateful that people valued my opinion, I was inundated with texts and calls, impromptu FaceTimes. It was from a segment of people. From CEOs to administrative assistants, to students, to deans of colleges, calling me to pick my brain, to see where my headspace was.

How I feel this is a seminal moment is, because the CEO of a Fortune 500 company canceled things for his whole company and did an impactful and soul-searching virtual Town Hall. It highlighted what’s wrong? And, how did we get here? He also acts for permission for his select African-American employees to share their experience. By the end of that virtual Town Hall, Chris, there was not a dry eye. I know I was very emotional, as well as the participants. That is the first time that I had saw what leadership can do and how it can impact their employees.

Chris Riback: I want to ask you about that leadership. Just bring that a little bit to life for me, so I understand the specifics. I’m assuming this was in the period right after, or sometime after George Floyd, is when you’re talking about?

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes, I think within 48 hours or 72 hours. It was prompt.

Chris Riback: It was like an all-hands Zoom of some kind? It was a virtual event and employees from all over the company, or various folks could participate and give their personal stories and share context and information, is that what you’re describing?

Dr. Alexandria White: Very much so. It stuck with me because that was a shift. That was a complete shift from what I had been working with, where, sometimes, a memo is sent out, or there’s nothing sent out. This was that pivotal moment. It has continued. I have interacted and spoken with some very influential people. While they might not get it perfect, Chris, they are trying. They are saying statements. They are putting things out there. I peruse the internet and look for statements or diversity statements by companies.

I want to know what companies are saying, or, are they putting anything out? There’s a company called James Hardie. I don’t have it verbatim, but they are a company that I have actually used as an example because their statement is so authentic. It talks about, we have not always been on the front lines of social justice and equality and being open to it, but we’re taking a stand now. Why I use that example is because they are so authentic in their response. It shows me that people are trying, that they might not know exactly what to do, but they want to do something. That’s from CEOs to CHROs.

Currently, I’m the Director of Diversity for ReBoot Accel. It’s a women-led, women- owned consulting company in Silicon Valley. We are very, very intentional when we’re going into companies and organizations. Tell me about your leadership. Are they bought into this diversity, equity, inclusion? If they are not, then our work is going to be a little bit harder. We have seen wonderful, wonderful results because it is a strategy, it’s a business case, and it’s also a moral case. That is why I feel this is a movement now, Chris. This is pivotal. Things are changing. I’m proud to be here. I’m proud to be in this space and working with people so that we can be more inclusive of others.

Chris Riback: I am sure that you are. I want to ask you in a moment about some of those results and about, very tangibly and tactically, what you’ve seen companies do, what companies can do to deliver those results. I want to follow on two points that you made previously.

One, I just found so thoughtful, which was your point, and it’s around leadership, that you don’t necessarily have to know all of the answers to be able to start asking the questions, is what I heard you. That’s how I interpreted what you were saying. Did I hear you right?

Dr. Alexandria White: You did. I tell people all the time, “Don’t be afraid. The fear of paralysis will interrupt or disable anything that we want to do.” People are scared. I don’t want to be in the next news cycle. I don’t want to say the wrong thing. Cancel culture is quite prevalent now, Chris, you know it, right?

Chris Riback: Yes.

Dr. Alexandria White: Everyone can cancel. He said this wrong thing. We don’t get any take backs now.

Chris Riback: No forgiveness, not much room for error right now.

Dr. Alexandria White: I hear you. I understand that. However, your paralysis is not moving the needle. What I hope to do and what people that do my work, we hope to do is, we know you are afraid of doing the wrong thing, but, as leaders, as progressive leaders, you have to understand that that is not an option. We give actionable steps. We’re going to motivate you. I love motivating people. I love putting out fires. I love under understanding how some people feel about these courageous conversations or this touchy subject regarding diversity. I’m also going to give you some actionable steps that you can do.

That comes the part. That comes the strategy and the action planning. This is the succession planning. What happens if? Any anticipatory things that might come up as we go along on this diversity, equity, inclusion journey. That is the conversation. It’s quite prevalent. We help with language and words, and giving you tools on what to read, how to interpret that, taking the role of the other. We deal with a lot of people who they’re CEOs, they’re quite busy and already doing things. How can we be more effective? How can we make sure that you’re an inclusive leader from the top down?

Chris Riback: Don’t let being afraid of doing the wrong thing keep you from doing the right thing, is what I’m hearing from you.

Dr. Alexandria White: Correct.

Chris Riback: The second question that I wanted to follow up on of your earlier point, I can’t get past the power of this all-hands Fortune 500 leadership-led event with the CEO. I think you said the CEO was a male. Didn’t you say he, I think?

Dr. Alexandria White: Correct.

Chris Riback: I’m curious, what is the race of the CEO? Before you answer that, did that matter? Whichever race the CEO is, did that matter? Was that a factor?

Dr. Alexandria White: Let’s just be candid. Most CEOs are white males, Chris. We know that.

Chris Riback: I’ve seen the data, yes.

Dr. Alexandria White: You’ve seen the data. Let’s not even talk about the makeup of boards.

Chris Riback: I’ve seen the data.

Dr. Alexandria White: Exactly. We’re going to use that as our foundation in this next segment. White males make up great amount percentage of CEOs, boards, private equities, an array of things in corporate America. We know that. I get the question, “Can I talk about diversity? I’m a white male.” Yes, you can. Because of your privilege and your access and your network, you would be a supreme ally in this discussion. I love working with white males who are on their journey to intentional allyship. They’re ready to have these courageous conversations. They’re ready to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know. How can you educate me?”

Another thing that I am noticing, these are just from white males that I deal with in different aspects, many of them are coming to this conversation with a level of vulnerability and humility. The conversation is off-record. They impact me and I know they impact them. It is so profound. We often don’t give people in positions of power the ability to be vulnerable.

It’s another call. It was another call that I was on. The CEO was so vulnerable about his experience being a minority as a white male, being a minority in a setting and how he changed and understood how it feels to be a minority in a setting. This was on a company-wide call. People were so impacted because, I guess, he had never shared that before.

It just showed that this CEO, he was a minority in a situation and how it changed and how he learns to take the role of the other and, sometimes, understands or empathize with people who might be the only in a room or the only on the board or the only underrepresented person in the room. That’s what I’m seeing. That is what I’m seeing.

Then, everything is not great. There’s still some people who need some more education. But overall, Chris, whether they are white, male CEOs or someone who is just beginning on their journey, this has been very receptive from my lens and my perspective.

Chris Riback: Well, that’s excellent to hear. Those moments, what you’re describing, moments can be so powerful and can carry on beyond the actual time that they occur, in terms of influence and in terms of being a common touchstone across a company, I would assume. I can imagine what the power is of those moments.

Before I took us back to two of those points that you had made earlier, you were starting to talk about results, you were starting to talk about outcomes and ways, I think, in which companies can, this is my word, not yours, maybe, institutionalize or regularize various behaviors or processes towards goals. Tell me more about that. What do those results look like? Are there tips or guidance that you can give, that folks can kind of grab a pen and paper and jot down some of your thoughts right now?

Dr. Alexandria White: Of course, in my other life, I’m a professor. I love when people say, “Take out a note and a pen and paper.”

Chris Riback:  As long as you don’t grade my penmanship, I’m happy to take out the pen and paper.

Dr. Alexandria White: Let’s talk about some action steps.

Chris Riback: Yes, please.

Dr. Alexandria White: We’re going to talk about all of these things and mindsets and words. We’ve got to do something that can be strategic. First thing, if you are in senior leadership and you are beginning the journey of “Let’s start the diversity, equity, and inclusion conversation,” you’ve got to listen. You’ve got to listen to your community. You’ve got to listen to your internal and your external community.

I say external because our businesses are in places that we live, work, and play. We are not an island in our corporations. Making sure that you have that external, I’d say, polls is very important. Listening sessions. Now, in this virtual world, you can create a virtual listening session by a couple of clicks. Invite everyone. Make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, if possible.

If you can’t do a listening session, a lot of our clients are doing poll surveys. They are sending them out. We’re making sure that there is not survey fatigue because we know, in this day and age, meetings are obsolete. We do poll surveys, climate surveys. You can’t be inclusive if you don’t know what the people need. That’s that equity part.

Next, a lot of people, corporations, clients, once we’ve listened, once we’ve heard what people want, now, let’s implement something. We’ve got to have a council. We’ve got to have a committee. We have to have an accountability piece to this because we want to make sure that we are doing this, and that is just not a trend, that is just not a moment. It is a movement.

I can’t think of the recent well-known company. I think it was Starbucks. Correct me if I’m wrong. They are attaching bonuses and incentives around diversity efforts. That accountability piece can also be in the form of making sure that senior leadership or directors, that they are held accountable in the regards of making sure that their teams or their hiring practices are diverse.

Next, mentorship is a key component in pushing the needle in regards to diversity, equity, and inclusion. People like to see people in senior leadership or visible role models that help them, that can show, “Hey, I see someone who looks like me in senior management and senior leadership. I think I can stay here.” That helps with retention. Retention helps with profit. It decreases turnover. Mentorship programs, sponsorship program. You can see how many programs that many, many Fortune 500 companies are doing in implementing because they know that visible role models is just one metric on how they continue to move the needle in the diversity space.

Another thing that we are talking about and that we are implementing is you set a goal. One thing that we advise against is, no, do not do a quick or knee-jerk reaction, because people will know if it’s authentic. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We usually start with three to five goals. Do not get overwhelmed. There’s so much work to do. We understand that. This is a marathon, not a sprint. We usually advise three to five goals that can be measurable.

I love data, quantitative data. I need to see visually that this is working. I need to see the numbers. We have a diversity dashboard that we use for those metrics. What’s the metric? By 2022, we would like our board to be made up 70% of a diverse representation. That’s measurable. We can see that. By 2022, we would like this many number of employees to be in our leadership program, in making sure that it’s diverse. We can see it. We can quantify it. We can do a plan to do that.

Those are some of the actionable steps that I often consult with and give those feedbacks, because we want to see the needle moving. We want to be impactful, intentional, and we want to have an overall goal and be accountable in that regard.

Chris Riback: That’s a fantastic list. Anything that I’ve stopped you too soon on, that you wanted to add on that portion?

Dr. Alexandria White: It is a continuous process. I don’t overwhelm people, but there’s so much work to be done. It starts with how you hire. One of people that we work with is, how are our hiring processes inclusive? Chris, there is research out there that, if you have an ethnic-sounding name, that you are 14% less likely to get a call back. Yes, this is true. The research has been done over and over again. Companies are saying, we know that there are biases associated with people’s names. Let’s have blind resumes, or let’s remove identifying names from the application process. It worked. You got a more diverse population and candidates by just that one simple gesture.

Chris Riback: Being a little bit mindful, being purposeful around the actions can make a difference.

Dr. Alexandria White: Being purposeful and understanding that. Then, I actually do diversity search committee training, which, every company, when you’re hiring people, there’s more than likely a search committee. Making sure that the search committee is objective and aware of their biases, because they’re the front line. They’re the ones that are going to be interviewing those candidates. Training evolves around making sure that the search committee is having inclusive practices. That is just another arm of the diversity work, starting on the front end with hiring.

Chris Riback: One needs to have mindfulness around the process as well.

Dr. Alexandria White: Yes, you have to be mindful. It starts with your mindset and understanding that these can be barriers for people. Let’s talk about inclusive practices in the company. Many of us have attended retreats and off-sites. There are clients who, exotic animal hunting or cigar rolling, or different things that might not be inclusive of people, or late night events, off-site events. Are you taking to account people who have children? Are you taking to account of people who might not be able body?

It’s that constant mindset, even when someone is hired. Things that you might not even think of. We talk to people. Some people disagree with exotic animal hunting and some people agree with it. Is that an inclusive opportunity for everyone? It’s just that mindfulness or being able to, “Let me step back and think about this for just a moment.”

Chris Riback: On that front, though, let me ask one question that I could imagine somebody asking, which is, “Alex, I hear you. Yes, I want to be inclusive. Of course, I don’t want to do things that are going to annoy people, make them feel lousy, have them not be included. But I can’t please everyone. I’m not going to come up with something like that. You know what? I got to just do some events and I’m not going to please everyone, Alex.”

Dr. Alexandria White: Man, that’s so familiar, Chris. I’m not going to be, “Everybody’s so sensitive.”

Chris Riback: Yes, everyone’s so sensitive, Alex.

Dr. Alexandria White: I do two-fold with this one. I say, I understand. Things are changing. You have been doing this quite a long time. Many of them, “Well, no one has ever complained about it before. Everything’s just so sensitive now.” I say, “How can we work through this?” One of my techniques, because I’m working with this, is I don’t want to ever think that we all have to be on the same page by the end of this meeting, that by the end of this 90 minutes, we are all going to agree that we should not do this. I think that’s inauthentic.

While someone disagrees with me and pushes back and thinks I’ve always done this way, I always ask them this. Do you understand the other point of view? They usually say, “Yes, I just don’t understand why we can’t continue to do this.” I say, “What is the overall goal of this activity?” They say, “It’s a fun time. We’re building rapport. We’ve done this.” I say building rapport or fun time, those are all aspects of someone that you want to keep in the company or that you want to build a relationship with.

Because you are in this leadership position, I know that you understand that people managing and building relationships is one of the foundations of your success. Don’t you think you would be a little bit more profitable or inclusive to get more people and build better relationships? They ponder and they think, “Well, yes. I agree. I just don’t want it to be.” Of course, we go back and forth.

What I want them to understand is, one, as inclusive leaders, you have to take the role of the other. As many reports have said, Generation Z, millennials, up and coming people, diversity, equity, and inclusion are some of the key factors where people are looking to spend their dollars, where they want to be employed, and where they want to give their energy to. Being sensitive or thinking, “Why do we have to change?” It’s a business and profitability aspect to that.

I also want to tell you, within the last couple of months, Glassdoor, of course, is a very, very influential aspect in hiring and recruiting. They will now have a metrics where people will be able to go on and say, “This is a space or this is a company that is inclusive of everyone.” It will be broadcast. It is now becoming broadcast when companies and organizations are not taking a diversity lens and being inclusive.

With all of this and a lot of understanding, and not necessarily agreement, I’m usually able to diffuse that conversation and come to an understanding on why it would be beneficial and advantageous for you to possibly alter something that you had been doing previously.

Chris Riback: What an important point that is. Understanding does not have to equal agreement. You can disagree, but I’m hearing you say it’s about putting yourself in a position to understand another point of view. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree with it.

Dr. Alexandria White: Correct.

Chris Riback: But maybe, just for a moment, you can understand it. Alex, as I come to a close on the conversation, the question that’s coming to my mind, I know the answer to it, but I’m really curious about the why, which is, are you hopeful? I know you are because I can hear it. That’s got to be your personality. You, surely, are not a person who goes into it. You can hear it. You’re not a person who goes into something without hope. Yet, we’re approaching six months since George Floyd, that we are in a politically-charged period.

As you and I are having this conversation, we’re still in a pandemic. We didn’t even talk about that. We can save that for another conversation about the diverse impact that the pandemic has had on diverse populations in this country, and frankly, around the world. As you think about DEI within corporations, within companies, within business, are you hopeful? Might I add, are you so hopeful? I sure hope you don’t take this the wrong way, that, perhaps, we could look forward to a day when you will be out of a job?

Dr. Alexandria White: That just gave me goosebumps, Chris. It really did. I pray, one day, I will not have to have these discussions. I pray that for my grandchild, my future grandchild, and their children. This is closing. I have to be hopeful. I want to talk about hopeful in a personal and a business case. Personally, I am hopeful because someone listening on this call, maybe, get another perspective. Maybe, they hear another perspective and they take something that I’ve said and they go implement that. That’s personal hope.

I get hopeful when I will never forget it. I’m trying not to get emotional. It was two days after George Floyd. I’m at the post office. I’m sitting in my truck and I’m not focused. I know I’m not. I’m just dealing with a lot. This white lady knocks on my truck window, Chris. I look up at her. I rolled my window down. Of course, I’m perplexed. I’m like, “What does she want?” Out of nowhere, this lady says, “I don’t know you. I am sorry for what has happened in our country. I love you.”

Chris, me and her just cried in the parking lot of a post office in Oxford, Mississippi, a random stranger. Actually, this is my first time sharing that story. That gives me hope. Random strangers who know that this is just more than a business case, that this is a moral case. That gives me hope, professionally.

On the business side, I do this every day, Monday through Friday, and sometimes, Saturdays. It is so many people. It doesn’t matter who they are, a CEO or someone who is just on a council. They’re ready to have these courageous conversations. They’re ready to mess up and learn and keep going.

Overall, we are more than like than different. This is a seminal moment in everyone’s lives. It is not going away, pre-pandemic, during the pandemic, and post pandemic. That is my hope. That is why I do this every day. That’s my demeanor. Thank you for that question. Thank you.

Chris Riback:  Well, thank you for that answer. Thank you to those two women in a parking lot in a post office in Oxford, MS for giving us all something to aspire to. Alex, thank you. Thank you for your time. Thank you, most obviously, for the work that you do every day.

Dr. Alexandria White: Thank you, Chris. Thank you for this opportunity.