Episode 21, 30 min listen
In this episode we talk with Dr. Nika White about how to build diversity, equity, and inclusion at the intersection of community and business. If you are a corporate leader, is your corporation showing up in your community? Are you thinking outside the four walls of your corporation? If you're a community change agent, are you partnering with the corporations in your community to advance community diversity, equity, and inclusion? Join us for this episode as Nika helps us understand how companies and communities across the country are working hand in hand to build a more inclusive world, starting with their own community.
Mentioned in the episode: Greenville Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission
Books by Dr. White:
Dr. Nika White is a national authority and fearless advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion. As an award-winning management and leadership consultant, keynote speaker, published author, and executive practitioner for DEI efforts across business, government, non-profit and education, Dr. White helps organizations break barriers and integrate diversity into their business frameworks. Her work has led to designation by Forbes as a Top10 D&I Trailblazer.
Ame Sanders 00:11 This is the State of Inclusion podcast, where we explore topics at the intersection of equity, inclusion, and community. In each episode, we meet people who are changing their communities for the better, and we discover actions that each of us can take to improve our own communities. My name is Ame Sanders, welcome. So today, we’re happy to welcome Dr. Nika White. Nika is the President and CEO of Nika White Consulting. She’s an author, a diversity, equity and inclusion (or DEI) practitioner, and a nationally recognized consultant and speaker. She’s also co-founder of the Carlo and Nika White Foundation. I first met Nika when she was leading the DEI work of our local Chamber of Commerce in Greenville, South Carolina. Given all that she’s done and continues to do for our local community, as well as her work nationally, Nika was the first person I thought of to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion at the intersection of community and business. Thanks for joining us, Nika.
Nika White 01:19
Ame, thank you so much for having me. It’s such an honor, I appreciate you thinking of me and I look forward to sharing the space and time with you in conversation.
Ame Sanders 01:28
So,I know you do a lot of consulting and training and speaking and I imagine that you work with a lot of organizations where you help develop their leaders. You help them with strategies and approaches to make their workplace more inclusive and equitable, and to ultimately make their organizations stronger and better places for all of their employees and prospective employees to work. But today, I want to kind of twist that a little bit and talk about the intersection between business and community, and the communities particularly which those companies or organizations operate. So the first thing I want to ask you is what do you think the corporations and organizations that you consult with expect from their communities in terms of diversity, equity and inclusion?
-Outside the Four Walls
Nika White 02:19
So first, Ame, thank you for having me. I love this question because I don’t think that we intersect business and community as often as we should. I have been sharing and amplifying this message more specifically over the past 12 or so months. What happens outside of the four walls of organizations certainly impacts the way in which its employees show up to the organization, how they perform, how they interact. So, I am big on organizations thinking intently about their corporate citizenship and responsibility and helping community to be at a place to where the embracement of diversity, equity, and inclusion is something that can help transfer into the marketplace in an appropriate way. I think that organizations are starting to get it. You know, when I think back to the summer of 2020, specifically, May 25, the date of George Floyd’s murder, it was so interesting to see how the language started to shift. A lot of corporations who at one point in time were very focused on “This is my lane. This is what we do. We’re not going to get involved in social justice issues or other types of social complex issues. That’s not who we are about.” What they began to realize is that their influence, their power, positioned them to be able to have a voice that could help us as a society emerge stronger.
So, I think there’s a more intentional blending of that intersection that I think is going to serve us well if we continue on that path. The bottom line is that communities, what they have to offer, how in which people may feel accepted and included, is often the basis of people’s decisions to relocate their families to certain areas and to accept certain positions with certain employers. So, if employers want to be seen as an employer destination, they’re going to have to care about all of the quality of life offerings within the communities and part of that, certainly, is the diversity, equity, and inclusion piece.
Ame Sanders 04:38
So you just covered a whole lot of ground in that conversation in that answer. So let’s just take a minute and unpack that a little bit for our listeners. So, first thing you told us, which is really good news is that you see that conversation shifting, and that is really exciting to hear that corporations that you interact with–and I know you interact with some big names–are starting to think about this a little bit differently and look, as you said, outside their four walls of their corporations and what happens within those four walls. You also talked about something that’s really important to think about, which is why is it important to them? It’s important to them based on what you said, to recruit people, but then also for the people that they’ve already recruited to help ensure that they are able to show up with their authentic self to work, and not bring baggage from what’s happening in the community and at home with them to work and they’re able to work more effectively and interact with one another more effectively. So, those were some important things for us to think about. Is there anything else that you think about in terms of why corporations should be thinking about this? And why now?
Nika White 05:51
So Ame, as I think about a lot of corporations who want to be perceived–and not just perceived–but that really want to live leadership, in many regards, I think they do it because they are trying to model what they want others to aspire for. So for example, oftentimes when I go in, and I have conversations with the most senior level leaders of organizations that are looking to start this journey or even elevate their commitment to the work of DEI, I began to ask questions that will give me a clearer understanding of whether or not this is a group of leaders who want their organization to lead, from a DEI perspective, align with the market from the DEI perspective, or lag. No one ever says lag, as you can imagine. Most often, very few people even say align. Mostly what they’re saying is we want to be a leader. We are already a leader in our industry. We want to make sure that we are a leader in other capacities as well, because we think that that even more so elevates us as an industry leader.
So, then we begin to unpack what does exemplary leadership look like in the tenants of DEI? Then we start to really break down what are the dimensions of DEI work. As we talk about each one of those dimensions, it really is a great way to align those leaders around organizational readiness, because one person could say, yes, we want to lead and this is what leading and DEI looks like for me and that could be a vastly different answer from the next leader who is just as much of a significant stakeholder. So, then we can have some deepened conversations around how do we now take all of these ideas that these influencers have about what they envision for how they want DEI to be manifested as a leader, and then bring some alignment to it so that we all are at least starting from a place of clarity and understanding. So, I think that part of the reason that many of those organizations will decide, yes, we want to engage in this work is because they want to be seen as a leader. Then again, as I mentioned, it gives me an opportunity to then deep dive a little bit further into that conversation.
-Corporate Social Responsibility
I also think that organizations are really concerned about the corporate social responsibility piece. With corporate social responsibility, you have to care about community, and caring about community means also caring about those communities, who find themselves really impacted negatively by systems of oppression. In that regard, a lot of their funding priorities will be towards organizations and efforts that are designed to help bridge that disparity gap that exists among those who were historically disenfranchised and marginalized. When you consider the revenue potential, people want to do business and support organizations that care about humanity, community, all of these important issues. I think that organizations are starting to understand that being in this space where they are deeply committed to the work of DEI helps from a business imperative perspective, also a moral imperative perspective, and the two together blended. I think it’s a win-win for our community, as well as for those organizations.
Ame Sanders 09:21
One of the things you didn’t mention which just having spent a long time in corporate life in my career, is also risk management. There is a factor of getting ahead of, you know, things that may happen, or they may find themselves involved in or their employees may find themselves involved in. So being prepared for that, anticipating that and building for that.
-The Three C's
Nika White 09:49
Ame, I’m glad she brought that up. And while it was not top of mind as I was responding just a second ago, that is huge. I often talk about what I refer to as the three C’s. So, these are reasons organizations are driven and motivated to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The first C is compliance. And that’s where a lot of that, you know, risk mitigation mindset will come in. You want to make sure that you’re complying to all of the regulations that are important and necessary for the different industries that maybe an organization could be a part of. You want to make sure that you’re obeying the laws of the land. No one wants to end up in anyone’s courtroom, for a lawsuit for discrimination or anything else that could fall into a territory of presenting as danger to any anyone. So, when I think about risk management, I often think about organizations being motivated for compliance reasons.
Then the second C is character, and that’s where we think about doing the work of DEI because of the moral imperative. It’s the right thing to do. We have this code of conduct. We want to make sure we’re maintaining this high corporate reputation of being an organization that really cares deeply about humanity and community.
The third C is commerce. That’s where organizations are driven and motivated to do the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, because they have reached the conclusion that there is power and strength and opportunity in being intentional about operationalizing DEI. What that looks like for them is they know, they’re going to be able to attract and retain the best talent. They know that through a DEI lens, they’re going to be able to create these strong team structures whereby people are collaborating at a high level because people aren’t afraid of that healthy conflict. In that healthy conflict and banter, we can realize a great level of creativity and problem-solving ability, which leads to innovation. All of that impacts the bottom line. So, as I think about risk management, though, I really do consider all three of those components combined. So, I’m glad you asked that question because it gave me a chance to reflect on that the whole compliance, character, and commerce as three reasons that a lot of organizations will engage in this work. I think that risk management can be found in every single one of those.
Ame Sanders 12:11
Yeah, and I think it’s easy to see with your three C’s, because I really liked that it’s very tight and succinct. It’s easy to see how those C’s connect then to community as well, and being able to link each one of those things to the communities within which these corporations operate, or these organizations operate. I happen to know that you have an interest in this too, but I want to ask you this anyway. So, we’re talking in broad terms about organizations. When I hear you talk about these, I think about big corporations and big organizations, but many, many, many of the employers in a community are the small businesses. They’re mom and pop shops. They are 5- and 10-person contract organizations or whatever they may be specializing in. Where do you think that this DEI work fits in in relationships–the community–for the small organizations?
Nika White 13:11
Executionally, it may look a little different, but from a foundational perspective, I think that the work is the same. DEI is all about people and culture and when we consider that no matter the size of an organization, every organization, whether it realizes it or not, it has a culture. That culture can either be helping people to show up at their best, which means that striving towards the best outcomes, or it could be hindering people from showing up at their best. In that situation, that’s where we are losing out on optimizing what our primary goals and objectives are for being in existence in the first place. I think that it applies.
I do realize that there are a lot of people who are of the persuasion that only those large box brand corporations should be doing this work. I always like to take opportunities where I can to refute that. So, thank you for the question. I think it’s more about again, just buying into the value set of operating with the lens of DEI and then whatever that looks like for each organization, making sure that you manifest that and being intentional around your practices, your systems, your policies, your procedures, how you are attracting your employees as well as your customers. Every organization regardless of size can certainly play in this space of operationalizing DEI. I really do. I even think about diversity supplier spends. A lot of times you only find large organizations that will have sophisticated and formal programs around their spend with diverse suppliers. But, every business has expenses, right? So again, it’s just about the level of intentionality that people are willing to subject themselves to in order to move the needle in ways I think could be really impactful.
-DEI: Activity or Impact?
I often talk about DEI from the standpoint of we can approach it as activity or we can approach it as impact. I always encourage people to approach it as impact. Activity has a start and an end date. If we consider any type of movement around DEI as an activity, then we’re only going to get just a moment in time of any type of benefits. Rather, what we have to do is look at systems, policies, procedures, culture, and again, see it as something that needs to be a part of the way of life of the organization. When I think about, again, the question of big large organizations/corporations versus small businesses, right now, small businesses collectively, are producing a ton of jobs for people. So, I like to think of it as all of those small organizations during their parts, but then collectively, what is that impact? It’s significant, because so many people are being employed by small businesses, especially now in the midst of this great resignation, where so many people are finding the season as an opportunity to start their own businesses and to employ other people either through 1099, or through W-2s. We are seeing the way in which people show up to work. The workforce is changing completely in many regards. That’s also a form of diversity–how we think about the workforce of the future and what the needs are of people.
Ame Sanders 16:37
Yeah, so the small businesses play a big role in the community in terms of the size of the employment base, but the influence that they have within the community, and the involvement in many cases that they and their owners have in community activities. So that’s really important as well. So, let’s just switch gears a minute. This may not be your area of focus, but just switch gears a minute to talk about the employees who actually work for the city or the county or the entities that make up our public environment. Where do you see DEI there? How do you see that playing out compared to corporations?
-DEI in Public Entities
Nika White 17:22
Again, I think that the tenants of the foundation of DEI, it applies the same across the board. Executionally only how those entities may decide to engage in the work of DEI can look a little different. When I consider municipalities, government organizations, they are serving a broad, diverse constituency. So in that regard, I think almost it deserves even greater level of attention and commitment to DEI. When we consider that what these municipalities are selling is a geography, and what about that geography is going to want to cause people to come and plant themselves and their families there? What about that city or that market is going to allow businesses to want to plant themselves there? Because that brings in jobs. I think there’s still a business imperative, but it’s also about what are we doing within those communities to make sure that as these newcomers consider our geographies can they know that they’re going to be safe, they’re going to be accepted, they’re going to be valued and heard and have a opportunity for success? So, it’s just a deepened and different level of responsibility. Not that it’s too incredibly off the beaten path of what corporations have to deal with as well, because they need to be considering those same things.
-Community Coalitions and Commissions
What I have seen increase over the past 12 to 18 months would be separate organizations and leaders within communities coming together to form this coalition or commission, if you will, whereby you have people from different sectors, whether it’s education, law enforcement, the business community. They’re all kind of coming together to create this more broad, comprehensive plan to address issues of equity and inclusion. That’s a really good approach, because it’s a way to really cast the net wide and to think about the challenges through the systems of oppression at a more holistic way. That then allows them to get to the crux of the matter, peel back all the layers, identify those root causes of issues that could be compromising inclusion and equity, and the solve for it in that way collectively. I’ve seen that. I even think about Greenville, South Carolina, where, more than a year ago, the Racial Equity and Economic Mobility Commission was formed. My firm is fortunate to be in partnership with this commission helping them to really navigate the complexities of how do we now bring together all of these key stakeholders and organizations and leaders to help solve for racial equity issues in our community? I wanted to share that as an example, but that’s something else that I’m seeing that I think is intersecting community and business. We need the business community at the table, but we also need those educators, we also need those government officials, we also need just concerned citizens who have great level of activism support from their followers. That’s a concept that also I’m seeing increase in numbers across the country.
Ame Sanders 20:33
I’m so glad you brought that up, because you actually jumped ahead of my next question, which was really to talk about what are the ways that the community can learn from actors in the community that are more forward thinking in this or perhaps more experienced? How can we broaden that experience base across the community, public, private, all of those folks cross-sector together to learn? You just gave a great example of how that can happen. One of the other questions I’m wanted to ask you a little bit about is there are entities in the community that work with businesses and advise them like the Chamber of Commerce, and I know you work with them. What do you see is their role to help advance diversity, equity, and inclusion and these principles across the community?
-Chamber of Commerce as Ally
Nika White 21:21
Such another great question, Ame. I will talk about it from direct experience with you know, as you mentioned, my involvement in the Greenville chamber. For your listening audience, I spent seven or so years serving as the SVP of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Greenville chamber. At the time, that was a newly created position. What was required was really building and establishing the Chamber’s DEI initiative and strategy that looked both internally and externally. Fast forward, after doing that for seven years, that’s when I then launched my management consulting firm. I continue to work with the Chamber though, but not as a W-2 employee, but now in a consultant-client capacity. So, I’m very much entrenched, still in the work of chamber organizations, not just the Greenville chamber, but chambers and other economic development agencies all over. So, I have good perspective here. I think that the role of economic development agencies, chambers, and even other associations that may exist to serve the needs of a broad-based group of constituents that have a high level of influence in the community, is that they can help through the volume of voice to help amplify some of those key issues of concern.
So, for example, the Greenville chamber, like many chambers, each year, they have a legislative agenda that is informed by input from the community. I also think about the example of REEM that I just mentioned-the Racial Equity Economic Mobility Commission. The Greenville chamber is one of three founding organizations of that commission. So, the chamber as a staple in the business community, the voice of the business community said, a big issue is racial equity, but it impacts business. So, we need to be at the forefront of this. The two other founding organizations are the Urban League of the Upstate and the United Way, very much organizations that are essentially focused on community and the community efforts. The message here is that those organizations have to get proximate to the problems, and part of getting proximate to the problems is bringing people to the table. The chamber is are great convener to bring people to the table to be able to discuss these issues. If we get proximate to the problems, I think that it positions us better to be able to be called to action. We’re not just trying to solve something on the surface, but we’re peeling back all the layers, getting to the crux of the matter. That’s what it means to be able to get proximate to the issues. The best way for organizations and individuals to serve as effective allies and allyship at a bare minimum is about useful action is to collaborate with those communities, those marginalized communities in which they’re trying to serve, and to address those disparities. Of what I just shared being a convener, getting proximate to the problems, leveraging their influence through the volume of connectivity they have to broad base populations of people and influencers. Those are incredible ways that chambers and other organizations alike can help move the needle forward.
Ame Sanders 24:40
So thank you for all of that insight, because I think it’s really important for our listeners as we think about how can we influence our communities. This whole conversation is to help remind us that there are large corporations and small companies out there who are leading in the space, who are interested in and who benefit from helping the communities to become more inclusive and equitable. And in addition to that, there are resources of people who already convene groups of people together, like the Chamber of Commerce, like the United Way, who can become part of this conversation and help you to find a way to move your community forward. So those were great examples and your advice of the conveners, becoming proximate. I loved that. That’s really helpful to see how that can actually play out in real life. You gave some good practical examples of what’s happening here for us at home, but it’s also happening in other communities across the country.
Nika White 25:49
Ame Sanders 25:50
So, at this point, I’d like to ask, do you have other things that we haven’t talked about that you feel like we should be talking about, or things that you want to bring out?
-Individual Opportunity and Responsibility
Nika White 26:02
You know, we’ve covered a lot of ground here today, I would say that I’m really big on people embracing and owning the opportunity to increase their own personal learning. I believe that this work starts at the personal level. We’ve talked a lot about organizations and what’s happening within the four walls of those organizations, but I think I also want to talk to individuals as well and say don’t necessarily wait for your organization to help educate you on DEI. You may very well be the catalyst that helps to jumpstart your organization’s journey around deepening its commitment. I’m a big believer that this work begins at the personal level, so personal reflection is really important. Resources abound right now. So, wherever you are within your learning journey, certainly take an opportunity to think more intently about what are the resources and tools you can put into your toolbox? We all are entering this conversation at different places. So, I think that it behooves each of us to hold ourselves accountable, because otherwise, if we just continue to operate off of “Well, I don’t know what I don’t know” it doesn’t exonerate us from the consequences of our actions. So, finding different ways to build up our own knowledge base, I think is going to serve us all well.
Ame Sanders 27:27
Nika, I’m so glad you brought that up, because the end organizations, systems, processes, and communities are all made up of individuals. We have an obligation to look inward, before we look outward, and to advance our own thinking and our own abilities before we try to influence others. Because in the end, the only person that we can influence is ourselves. I’m really glad that you brought up that notion of individual responsibility and accountability and opportunity. Nika, thank you so much for joining us today and I really appreciate this conversation and your insights.
Nika White 28:12
Ame, it was great to reconnect. Thank you again for inviting me to share with your audience and I’m grateful that we had this time.
Ame Sanders 28:22
That was a great conversation with Nika White of Nika White Consulting. If you’re listening to this interview and you’re a corporate type person, is your corporation showing up in the community? Are they thinking outside the four walls of the corporation? And are you helping to motivate them to do that? If you’re a community change agent, are you working with your corporations in your community who might already be very far down the road of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and be very motivated to work within the community and to partner with you? Are you also partnering with some of the conveners like the Chamber of Commerce? Nika reminded us that corporations are often motivated by what she called the three C’s: compliance, character, and commerce. I was very encouraged to hear that she’s seen corporations all across the country become more involved in building more equitable communities and influencing the justice work in the communities in which they operate. Nika reminded us that for many of those corporations, it’s not only that it’s the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense. This has been the State of Inclusion podcast. Join us again next time. And if you enjoyed this episode, the best compliment for our work is your willingness to share these ideas with others leave us a review. We’d love your comments. Thanks so much for listening.
Guest: Nika White
Host: Ame Sanders
Social Media and Marketing Coordinator: Kayla Nelson
Podcast Coordinator: Emma Winiski
Sound: FAROUT Media