I’m a black man running a $60 million digital services company. I am proud of the diversity of my team of nearly 200 people – 49% are women and 38% are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) – and the work we do through our incubator to help other minority and women entrepreneurs grow. and grow their businesses.
My business is growing rapidly and I’m becoming a more recognized leader, especially in our hometown of Baltimore, but I still sometimes wonder if I belong. Am I looking the part? Sound the game? Am I seen by new relationships as a successful entrepreneur?
I recently attended the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs and was a finalist for Entrepreneur of the Year in the Mid-Atlantic region. It was an incredible four days for my COO and me. Ernst & Young did a great job of fostering strategic presentations and celebrating the country’s finalists.
However, as I walked around each day, I noticed that there weren’t many people who looked like me. It’s not unusual. At most events, I tend to be one of the few people of color in the room – and that’s frustrating. Over the years I have been blessed with mentors and sponsors who have lifted me up and created space for me, but I often wonder about the impact of the lack of diversity on other entrepreneurs and colored leaders.
To be clear, more and more companies are engaging in DEI efforts. According to McKinsey, companies involved $66 billion in 2020 to advance racial equity. Yes, we are making progress in hiring and advancing women and people of color. Yes, there are more funding opportunities and programs that highlight the successes and contributions of people of color. But that’s just not enough.
Creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments means more than hiring or promoting diverse talent. This means more than increasing investment in Black-owned businesses and products.
As entrepreneurs, we need to create spaces to ensure authentic inclusion. People need to feel good about themselves, to sit down fully at the table. But to create inclusive spaces, the creators of said space must be representative of the groups they seek to include. For example, when planning an event or awards program, the committees planning or judging the event should be diverse. This both identifies gaps in representation and ensures that the environment makes everyone feel comfortable. Creating a sense of inclusion helps people feel valued and gives them a sense of belonging, rather than just checking the box.
In Deloitte 2021 DEI Transparency Report, they defined inclusion, one of their core values, as “strengthening our inclusive culture to empower people to be authentic themselves, to feel like they belong, to have courageous conversations with respect and to develop real relationships.
Additionally, we need to become more aware of our biases and not make assumptions about the people we meet. When you’re introduced to someone at a meeting or event, don’t assume they’re asking for help. That black entrepreneur you meet at an event might not be a newbie entrepreneur asking for your advice — they could be the head of a multimillion-dollar business.
Arlan Hamilton, founder of Backstage Capital, noted, “I think treating everyone the same, no matter where they’re from, no matter who they are and what role they have, is a big key because you never know who you’re talking to, really. You never know where they’re going. You never know where they’re going. So it just makes sense to treat everyone the same and treat them well.”
Finally, those of us who are successful must intentionally lift others up, invite them into spaces they may not have access to, and give them a seat at the table. We must help position those who are often overlooked in a place of influence and provide them with a platform for their voice to be heard.
If companies want to attract more diverse talent and organizations want to recognize a more diverse roster of award nominees, there must be cultures and environments that will attract, and a plan to engage with a diverse audience. If you don’t know any people of color, or if people of color don’t know your organization, there’s no realistic way to expect change. And, certainly, there will be no momentum gained if people leave feeling misplaced.
While we are making progress in creating more diverse workplaces and communities, we are still not advancing inclusion. For people to feel comfortable and confident to grow, evolve, and succeed in environments they weren’t previously part of, we need to be more intentional about inclusion practices.