Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear each Wednesday.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend an hour with Paul Herring, President of 101 Solutions Consulting in Greenville, SC, and answer some of his questions about how to get started with diversity and inclusion. The conversation left me feeling inspired, and I wanted to share a little of it here. What I liked so much about it was that Paul understood diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) isn’t just something nice to have; it’s a competitive advantage. Diversity of thought unlocks the potential for a team to do bigger, better things and be more adept at their jobs overall.

Paul started out in the apparel industry when he was 15 years old and retired at 49 as Chief Supply Chain Officer for Nike’s Converse division. From the way he tells it, he was retired for less than 90 days before he fell into consulting. The business is doing well, but he wants to do better, and I admire that about him.

It takes courage to name the things you aren’t good at and then really invest in improving them. As Paul described it, he’s “a middle-aged white guy surrounded by a lot of other middle-aged white guys.” He wanted to know how to think about diversity and inclusion.

He asked, “What should I be considering that would make my business a more attractive place for a more diverse group of people? Because working at Nike, I had the opportunity to work with people from all over the world, from all different backgrounds. It was not unusual to go into a room where everybody was diverse in some way, and now, the group of us that has assembled — not intentionally — but this group of us looks a lot alike and we think a lot alike. So I’m trying to figure out this year, as I start to invest in more people and bring them into the company, how do we grow more diverse?”

That’s a powerful question, and the answer from my perspective is three-fold: commit to your own personal learning, diversify your professional services, and don’t be afraid to show people the progress you’re making even if you think it’s not enough yet. People often think of DEI as a major initiative only, so the business tendency is to look for systemic solutions around budget, strategy and culture. You should certainly do those things, but it takes time to do them well. Here are the small steps that you can take to get started immediately.

Commit to your own diversity education

I mentioned this principle in last week’s column as well, but do not underestimate the power of your personal example. Your team is always watching, and they will naturally emulate your behaviors, commitments, and focus areas. Invest in your own learning and create personal education plans around DEI topics for you and your leadership team. 

Becoming a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) is the single best place to start. Not only will it teach you the skills and tools you need to build an infrastructure for a diverse team, but having those letters after your name will show job-seekers, employees, and partners that you are doing the work to grow.

Diversify your professional services

If you’re looking to hire three or four people this year, talk to someone in recruiting who has a multicultural background, and give them an opportunity to earn your business. This isn’t about quotas or handouts; it’s about accessibility and opportunity. You’re already spending money on professional services like lawyers, accountants, recruiters, trainers, and etc, so how can you use those expenditures to push revenue into underserved and underrepresented communities?

Think about the people you ask to train your team. Think about the businesses you hire for catering or, when the world reopens, where you’ll go for staff retreats and business dinners. Who owns those companies? What does their employee diversity look like?

Also consider what amazing opportunities you could offer as paid internships for people to get solid work experience and start building their professional networks. Form a relationship with the career services group at your local HBCU, offer to be a guest speaker in some of their classes, or create an internship that allows you to build a pipeline for more diverse job candidates and clients.

Again, the part I reiterate with executives is that this is about gaining awareness and expanding the network of people you talk to about anything you’re going to do. It’s not about changing your quality standard or your expectations —  just expanding the opportunity to choose the best people.

Show people the progress you’re making

Even if your team is currently majority male, majority middle-aged and majority white, talk on your website about what you’re doing around DEI. Talk about the thousand dollar scholarship you’re giving to a student of color. Talk about how you’ve transformed your thinking. Talk about how you’re encouraging your teams to use local restaurants and businesses that are owned by diverse people. Talk about the competitive advantage of diversity and inclusion to create momentum that’s authentic to your real-world efforts.

Now, if I’m an African-American consultant, and I’m looking to join your company of all white males, I’m certainly going to notice that aspect of your business, but that alone is not going to turn me away. What I want to know is if people at your business care about making necessary changes and are creating a space where I can succeed. And it’s not just about race. It’s about gender, sexual orientation, family status, age and disability too.

There are so many different ways that people identify, and when they’re looking at your organization, they’re looking to see if you support inclusivity for their identity group and for other underrepresented groups as well. Are you doing what’s necessary to support professionals with disabilities? Are you familiar with accommodations and assistive technology? How are you supporting professionals from all backgrounds and cultural groups?

Your DEI efforts don’t have to include changing everything, all at once. What’s most important is to lead by example and take small steps to get started today.

About the Author

Donald Thompson is a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE) and co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-enabled diversity and inclusion firm focused on culture change and business outcomes. Their next available course of executive diversity training begins January 26th

Sign up now to receive their next industry briefing: Transforming Venture Capital and Private Equity through DEI.  

Donald is also CEO of Walk West, an award winning digital marketing agency. With two decades of experience growing and leading firms, he is a thought leader on goal achievement, influencing company culture and driving exponential growth. Donald is also a mentor, teacher, public speaker, author, podcaster and angel investor. Reach out to him on LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com.

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