What I Learned From Challenging My Beliefs About Workplace Diversity

Garrett headshot forbesby Garrett Neiman

Most organizations acknowledge the importance of diversity, but relatively few make demonstrable, sustained progress. Some of these failures can clearly be chalked up to a lack of commitment. In just as many cases, though, the root causes are more nuanced.

One such nuance is that ‘diversity’ is only one facet of the respectful, just en­­vironments many organizations are striving for. Diversity certainly helps organizations approach challenges from more perspectives, make better decisions, and produce more creative ideas. But inclusivity—going out of one’s way to value and practice respect for employees’ talents, beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles—is just as important, enabling employees to bring their full selves to work and inspiring productivity and loyalty. Another facet still is equity, or the combination of removing systemic barriers to advancement and providing opportunities that balance out those barriers. Equitable organizations are able to put greater numbers of talented employees into positions where they can have a bigger impact and create more ­­­value.

I don’t claim to have a magical solution for the practical difficulties of building a diverse, inclusive, and equitable organization. In fact, I don’t believe one exists. But I have learned that conventional wisdom in this domain is frequently wrong. By challenging my own beliefs, I’ve seen much more progress in my efforts to create a more equitable version of the organi­zation I run.

Doing so has also showed me that my desire to do the right thing, and my belief that we were succeeding in certain ways, sometimes stifled the transformational change that our organization needed.

A strong focus on diversity, equity and inclusion has always been crucial for organizations like mine. CollegeSpring, the nonprofit organization of which I am CEO, helps students from low-income backgrounds overcome many of the obstacles preventing them from reaching college. We literally cannot achieve our mission if we do not model the just society we aspire to create.

And when I’ve thought in the past about how well we were doing, there were a few facts that I believed were signs of success. One example is our programs staff members and student mentors, the majority of whom have historically been people of color. Compared to certain prominent American companies with little to no diversity in business-critical roles, we seemed to be on a promising track.

Still, I was skeptical when our head of Human Resources suggested we invite a nonprofit consulting firm to run an all-day diversity and inclusion workshop with our staff. Like many leaders in similar positions, I asked: surely we weren’t handling diversity perfectly, but surely we were at least on a good trajectory? Was such a workshop worth the money and time, particularly when we had limited funds and a lot of important work to do?

She persisted, though—and thank goodness she did. Because that workshop catalyzed an ongoing conversation about our culture and values that wasn’t at all what I’d expected.

Immediately, many people said that our organization wasn’t as equitable or inclusive as it could be. Many staff members raised concerns about the lack of diversity on our leadership team and Board of Directors, or said they felt uncomfortable discussing race and privilege at work. Myriad concerns were raised, but the common thread was that the organization was clearly not living up to its potential.

This feedback certainly wasn’t easy to receive. But I’m grateful that the team spoke up, because their concerns sparked an ongoing conversation about how our organization can and must change. They helped bring to light several misconceptions that I had been laboring under:

  • First, I had given us too much credit for overall organizational diversity. While the majority of our staff were people of color, the further up one went in our organization, the less diverse it became. Our leadership team was less diverse than the rest of our staff, and our Board of Directors is less diverse than our leadership team. While I had proudly compared our organization to large companies with dismal diversity numbers, in terms of equity we were little better.
  • Second, I underestimated how much is necessary for people to feel comfortable talking about race and privilege at work. Lack of representation in our leadership level offers one example. How could people feel comfortable speaking up if they didn’t feel any of their leaders would understand their life experiences? Furthermore, I rarely went out of my way to encourage these conversations out of the fear that it would be inappropriate. But that actually made people wonder if I was interested at all.
  • Third, our conversations and the subsequent work we did with a consultant revealed that it wasn’t my place to decide what our diversity goals ought to be. When the person in power drives the process, other voices aren’t heard. That is exactly what we were trying to avoid.

These realizations have led us to take some important initial steps:

  • We’ve formed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee from people at every level of our organization. That committee—rather than just me—is re-thinking our approaches to diversity in our workplace. We’re still ironing out the details of how they’ll make decisions, but I’m committed to a scenario where the real power lies with them and I use my influence to support their vision.
  • We’re creating specific avenues for people to talk about the intersection of race, gender, orientation, class, immigration and privilege at work. One example is a series of additional workshops with our consulting firm. These workshops allow our team to talk about equity and inclusiveness at CollegeSpring—in an environment that is somewhat removed from our usual power structure.

These early actions represent only the beginning of our journey, but I’m confident that they—and future steps like auditing our organization more fully and pushing our board to prioritize diversity more highly—will help us achieve our mission, and make us a more equitable organization. This is a lifelong effort, and every step forward is necessary progress.

Garrett Neiman is CEO and co-founder of CollegeSpring.

Cover photo credit: NikiSublime