“Even when there’s nobody watching, we’re still the witnesses to our own lives.”
― Roz Savage
Watching the events of the past week unfold, I have been struck by the efforts so many people are making to understand realities alien to their own. Perhaps you’re reading this post and asking yourself if you could do more to be on the right side of history and move our society forward. At the same time, you may be wondering if engaging in these discussions is appropriate in a work setting, especially one that may have avoided serious conversations on race, privilege and bias in the past.
I hope the last week has made it clear that remaining quiet, even in “professional” settings, has become untenable and that history has shown that silence, in the end, is tantamount to complicity. The time has come finally for all of us to embrace these difficult, and even painful, discussions in our professional lives. I don’t know any person of color, any woman or any member of the LGBTQ+ community who has not experienced moments of discomfort, humiliation, harassment or even discrimination in their professional lives as a result of their identity.
If you haven’t heard these stories, you haven’t asked to hear them. As a brown-skinned immigrant child who grew up to become a consulting partner and, now, founder, I have my own stories. In my youth, I was thrown against walls and onto police cars hoods not once but multiple times. As a young college graduate, I was stopped at the door of a private club in Manhattan, at which the local alumni group was hosting a lunch, while other white graduates walked in without hindrance. As a consultant, I was followed to my hotel by a group of white men shouting insults, because I had dined with a blonde, female colleague. In more recent times, I have been handed valet tickets and coat check stubs after board meetings in expensive restaurants. I have never discussed these events, yet many of them took place at work, invisible to my white colleagues. Because these types of micro, and macro, aggressions happen in our professional lives and spaces, it’s there that they need to be acknowledged, discussed and addressed.
We should not pretend that biases somehow disappear when the office door, or now the Zoom window, opens. They exist, they do damage, and they need to stop. Moreover, change, if it is to come, must be brought about by both large efforts and small gestures. While the former may have the most structural impact, it’s the latter that has the most personal meaning. Companies need to move beyond — far beyond —slogans on Twitter and LinkedIn and take seriously their responsibility to create workplaces that are equal in hiring, unbiased in promoting, and completely committed to rooting out and eliminating those who use tired excuses to hold back social change and human progress.
We have been talking about equality my entire professional life, but change has been too slow and too scattered. I would ask the CEOs of every company, large or small, to look deep into their hearts after hearing the cries of society this past week and ask themselves what they, their boards, and their companies, can do to be the active champions of a more equal future and not the passive captives of a less equal past.
At the individual level, I would ask anyone trying to understand the hurt and anger of those less privileged to reach out and begin a dialogue with a minority, female or LGBTQ+ colleague. Travel into their world and reality, and explore their lives and their experiences. If you do so with sincerity, humility and empathy, it will be welcomed and reciprocated. If you are not ready to engage in this struggle personally, then read about and support, both with words and money, those who do. If you would not march, then give strength and comfort to those who do so in your spirit, if not in your name.
The actions that may result from my previous exhortation may seem, to some at least, to be nothing more than forced gestures. In response, I say that gestures matter and small efforts can, over time, lead to big change. This point was brought home to me a few years ago when I met Roz Savage, the former Accenture consultant who became a trans-oceanic rowing champion. She was giving a talk to a group of executives about her achievements and happened to mention that from the start she rowed, in part, to raise awareness about climate change. Upon hearing this, one of the executives asked cynically, “How is that working out for you?” Without missing a beat, Roz replied that, for her, every trip and every speech was a “feather on the scale,” shifting downward, however slightly, the side that represents positive change. As she put it, we had been putting weights on the wrong side for decades, so she knew that it would take a while for the balance of the scale to tip. Nevertheless, for her, every stroke of her oar was a feather placed on the correct side of the scale and thus one small movement toward the moment in the future when the weight shifted, irrevocably, to the right side of history.
As the founder of a startup, I commit my efforts and those of my new company to doing our part to tip the scale in the right direction. We will start small, but we will be resolute in our vision and committed in our actions. Let us all be feathers on the scale of right and wrong. Together, we can, must — and will — move our working world to the side of a greater justice and a more equal peace.