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  • Vonetta Young

Leaning Into Diversity

It was such a pleasure to speak with Debra Albert on the first episode of her new series, Leaning IN to the Future of Work. I know that NYC’s Lean In network is one of the world’s largest, and Debra is extraordinarily well networked, so I was deeply flattered to have even been considered to appear on it, much less be the first guest.


When Debra mentioned that she wanted to talk about diversity and the cause of Black Lives Matter, the first thing I said was, “Are you sure I’m the right person?” Although I am a Black woman who grew up in the South, I have, many times, felt that I am not militant enough in my stances and that I can often feel like a Pollyanna as I encourage people to focus on what they want, not on what they don’t.


“You’re perfect!” Deb said, and I shrugged.


The issue of diversity, for me, is not an issue. It is a matter of fact. Study after study has shown the benefits of diverse workplaces, from higher stock prices in companies with more women on their boards to overall higher morale in companies composed of diverse teams. The business case has been more than proven, but the needle hasn’t moved as much as we would like. I think the reason isn’t purely because diversity isn’t wanted; I think it’s because we bask in the safety of what we know.


I don’t have to go into detail about the history of American business and its white male dominance any more than I have to quote the statistics of how few women (especially women of color) get funding from venture capitalists. We all know that the way it is is the way it’s been. Our brains find safety in things that stay the same. When things change, it requires a rewiring of our neural pathways. This isn’t physically painful, but can be emotionally so, subconsciously.


This all amounts to us feeling better about not trusting each other than actually building relationships. Americans have never had to trust each other before; in fact, laws and other social factors (ahem, segregation) made it so we consciously would not trust each other. And even though those laws are no longer in place, it’s very easy to see their effects rippling through time.


So, how do you build trust?


As I mentioned in my interview, I adore the show “Married at First Sight.” It’s a reality show on Lifetime that is exactly what it sounds like: two strangers meet for the first time at the altar and are immediately married. They then go on a honeymoon like a regular couple, then move in together like a regular couple, then, after eight weeks, they decide if they want to stay married or get a divorce, not like a regular couple. It’s absolutely insane, and I love it. What I love about it is that we get to see people go from being perfect strangers to having the most intimate relationships of their lives. Some of them actually do fall in love, and even have babies.


If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the show it’s that openness is required to build trust. Both people have to possess the desire for the marriage to work, and they have to be open to learning how to make it work. They have to be open to learning to trust the other person, setting aside their fears and dismantling the walls built by past traumas. …Can you tell where I’m going with this?


If there is one thing we have an abundance of in 2021 it is the opportunity to communicate. On social media, we can make ourselves heard, regardless of whether someone is listening or not. We know how to talk—now, we have to learn how to listen.


Open yourself up, then have equal amounts of compassion and grace ready to hand out like Halloween candy. I’m cautious of using the word “empathy,” as I often find it difficult to put myself in the shoes of someone whose life is vastly different from my own. But I can have compassion—I can allow a sliver of tenderness for someone when I choose to. And I can give grace, which is the space for people to accidentally mess up here and there, and they will. But that’s how we learn.


There are two things I tell my clients that I want to leave with you: “Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want,” and “Respecting people is easy.”

We know we don’t want racism. We don’t want inequality. We don’t want women of color to get the embarrassing fraction of a percentage of capital they currently receive. We don’t want workplaces in which there is Only One [person of color]. We agree on that.


So, what do we want?


I want love. I want equity. I want women to get 50% of the capital. I want Black people to get at least 13% of the capital. I want people of color to be proportionally represented in the workplace. I want our voices to be valued. I want my life to matter.


Respecting people is easy. Let’s focus on that.

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