Diversity and Inclusion Experts Agree: A Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive Company is Better Equipped to Make Good Decisions and Disrupt the Status Quo

Diversity Drives Innovation

Cultivating a diverse and inclusive work environment propagates innovation, leading to increased profitability, creativity, stronger governance, and better strategic problem-solving, many experts argue.

Think and I-95 Business hosted a panel of diversity and inclusion experts to discuss how a substantial, ongoing efforts are needed to build a diverse and inclusive workforce to power innovation ecosystems. This online, Think Innovate mini-event provided a preview of a session being presented at Think Innovate 2022, a technology and operations innovation conference that will convene 200+ C-level executives, business owners, and government executives October 19-20 in Owings Mills, MD.

Panelists included: Mari-Louise Ross who is working to institute DEI at JMT, a civil engineering firm with 2,000 employees; Jamie McDonald, CEO at Upsurge Baltimore, an investment fund and economic engine for Baltimore start-ups; and Kimberly Prescott, President of Prescott HR which helps clients on align people strategies with business strategies. The session was moderated by I-95 Founder and Publisher Vickie Franz. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: What is a key leadership skill needed to create an innovative workplace?

McDonald: There’s not a single leadership skill that one needs. I take a step back from what skill the individual leader must have and look at the culture you’re looking to establish more broadly.  It really starts at the executive level. The tone is certainly set by the CEO with how employees are included in decision making and feedback loops to create a culture that welcomes diverse opinions. It starts at the beginning with how job descriptions are written, where you hire, where you recruit and how you articulate the culture that you want to invite somebody to apply. It really happens at each step along the way and it’s hard to disaggregate just one leadership style or of a work process as a magic bullet. If you just do one thing, you’re not going to build an inclusive culture. You need a comprehensive cultural framework.

Q: What role does diversity play in the innovation strategy at JMT?

Ross: All the good business literature tells us that diverse teams are better at making decisions because they bring more perspectives.  And that is all diversity, so

JMT is an engineering firm and historically very male and very white. As we grow and compete in new markets where other skills are important, the realization is very strong that the status quo isn’t sufficient to meet growth targets, so we need to embrace more diversity. Over the past five years, there’s been a conscious effort to include minority groups more and more. We are on a really strong growth path, and we have to believe that it’s correlated with our DEI efforts.

Q: How would you describe or define diversity?

Prescott: I don’t know that there is necessarily one definition of diversity as it relates to the workplace. Jamie talked about culture and before we can understand what diversity means, it’s important to understand the definition of culture. Many people incorrectly believe that culture is your mission or vision statement. Culture is actually the personality of your organization. It is the experience that people have in your organization. To have a diverse culture, that has to be the personality of the organization.

Allowing all opinions to come to the table, not just women or minority groups, it’s also different thoughts. People bringing their entire self to work and feeling okay challenging the status quo and having unpopular opinions. Making it a safe place to bring that to the table is what diversity means as it relates to workplace and culture.

Q: How are you innovating at your organization?

McDonald: It’s a really broad ranging set of culture-building and initiatives meant to draw new people into the knowledge economy and the discussions about what that should look like. It creates a place of welcome and belonging for people who have traditionally not felt that they’ve had access to the established paths or networks to participate in the 21st century economy.  We look at our work in four core lanes

  1. Creating a shared understanding about diversity’s potential to drive innovation
  2. Becoming a place that welcomes founders in Baltimore that take a nontraditional path to starting their company, show them that Baltimore is excited there here, supports their growth, will provide a network of resources, and link them into peer networks so founders can grow together
  3. Broadening pathways to technology careers for kids and adults
  4. Promoting technology that drives DEI

Describe your experience instilling the value of DEI at your company.

Ross: It is a struggle because company surveys give us data and anecdotes that we are struggling to retain diverse candidates. I attended a seminar where a woman who moved out of a technical career into a diversity officer position said that inclusion leads diversity. You almost need a critical mass in your company for people to feel included, so they feel comfortable staying and speaking their mind. To get up that initial activation energy is hard. We haven’t figured it all the way out, but we speak to new candidates honestly about where we are and what we’re trying to do.

When you’re helping clients hire, what kind of strategy do you provide to ensure they are inclusive and diverse?

Prescott: We don’t exactly drive recruitment strategy with our clients. We try to help people understand that there’s not just one point in time that you start diversity initiatives. It’s everything from how your job postings are written, where you post them, who’s on the interview panel, how are they on boarded, who’s involved in the onboarding process, and did you provide them with a partner or advocate in the organization?

Before starting my business, I worked for a very large organization, and I will absolutely tell you that having an advocate in the organization that is the most critical thing. Before you meet that critical mass that Mari-Louise mentioned, to create a feeling of inclusion, people have to feel they have an advocate. They have to know that when they’re not in the room, somebody’s there speaking on their behalf or bringing back pertinent information.

When it comes to hiring, make sure you don’t just go to places where you can find diverse people. Make sure you create every touch point along the way to help people feel included. Diversity is the very beginning and honestly that is the lowest bar.  You can go get diverse people, but how do you make the organization create equity and inclusion that’s the hard part.

Where I worked, 95 percent of the people were White men. They and at any moment would have on brown shoes khaki pants and a blue button-down shirt.  How do you feel included in that environment and what do you do as an organization to say this is who we are and that’s fine. Yes, we can go get a whole bunch of diverse people, but then what? That’s the work that really needs to be done in the workplace. It’s that point where it becomes intentional. Things start to change.

How have you seen DEI processes work?

McDonald: I started my career in investment banking as a young woman in the late 80s, so I lived on the other side before anybody was even talking about diversity. I’ve experienced the whole continuum of what’s happened from the 80s to today in terms of first recognition and then grudging attempts to try to do things differently, to put language around it. It is the language that we have right now to talk about some set of standards that we hope that companies begin to adopt.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy to be successful and that’s why I keep going back to this concept of culture.  When you have an inclusive culture, sometimes it’s hard to put language around. But you know when you see it, there’s an authenticity. A genuine attempt to continually evolve approaches.