Out, Equal, and Intersectional: Erin Uritus and Her Powerful Vision for the Future of LGBTQ Workplace Equality
Erin Uritus, CEO of Out & Equal Workplace Advocates, joins the program to discuss the growing number of employees in the workplace who identify as LGTBQ, and how to create a more inclusive workplace. Discover the “moment of truth” that companies are facing, and the international impact of corporate policies. Erin also reveals her vision for Out & Equal and what trends she finds most encouraging and exciting.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Erin’s diversity story, including her international work (4:30)
- The impact that Millennials will have on the workforce (16:00)
- Erin’s vision for Out & Equal as an organization (22:00)
- How to have a larger conversation about authenticity and belonging (25:00)
- The importance of civic engagement in addition to corporate change (27:30)
- The “moment of truth” for companies (36:30)
- How to use design thinking in diversity work (38:00)
- Some of the companies that are pushing forward with DE&I efforts (47:00)
- An exciting trend with multinational corporations (52:00)
JENNIFER BROWN: Mission-driven organizations and global impact are just some of Erin Uritus’s passions.
Her path has taken her from supporting African woman journalists in Dakar, to advising government agencies around the world on their communications strategies in her capacity at Booz Allen, including one Middle East government during the 2007 economic crash, subsequent “Arab Spring” revolutions, and major Nationalization programs. She captured her best practices in a co-authored book about Change Management in government, published in both Arabic and English.
Her activism work back in the US was fueled by the senseless murders of James Byrd, Jr. and Matthew Shepard, as well as the Columbine massacre. I first met Erin years ago in the context of an organization we are both passionate about, Out and Equal. While she was at Booz Allen as the LGBT Employee Resource Group leader, she co-chaired the annual conference, co-founded the DC affiliate, and would all these years later become CEO of the organization, last year, in 2018, bringing her global, intersectional lens to her leadership role, and becoming a leading voice in the movement to create more inclusive workplaces for all of us.
Erin has a Masters in Organization Development (OD) from American University, and two Masters certificates in Change Management and Performance Management from Johns Hopkins and Georgetown, respectively. She lives in Washington DC with her two beautiful daughters Amira and Haneen. Erin, welcome to The Will to Change.
ERIN URITUS: Thank you Jennifer. I’m so happy to be with you today.
JENNIFER BROWN: I am too. You remerged into my life and many of our lives a year plus ago when you took on the Executive Director role at Out & Equal an organization that many of our listeners know and are involved in and know that I’ve been involved in for, oh my goodness, 15 years maybe?
ERIN URITUS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. We knew each other way back then when the conference was 200 to 300 people and now of course, 6,000, 7,000? I’m not sure but you’re at the helm now of that movement and we’re going to get to that in this episode. I’m always fascinated with leadership journeys and yours has been a winding one that, to me, makes perfect sense because I think you have and will do incredible things with that platform and that community of LGBTQ and allies. But we’ll get to that after we talk about your diversity story. We always begin The Will to Change with the statement that everybody has a diversity story. Some of our stories are visible, many of them are not. I want to open up the floor for you to tell us about who you are and share whatever you’d like that gives us some context to the passion that you have for the change that you’re trying to create in the world.
ERIN URITUS: Absolutely. I’m thrilled to cover that. I first just want to say I am thrilled to be on your show. Part of what we’ll get to later I hope, is part of my journey has been living and working overseas for several years. One of the sincere pleasures I’ve had is kind of following what you’ve done with diversity Jennifer and how this work has evolved. I just really want to say I’m thrilled, and I’m really honored to be on your show and I really look forward to having this conversation with you today.
I love starting with a story by the way. I think stories are critical. I love hearing other people’s story. Besides the business case for diversity, I think stories are what touch people’s hearts and help us connect to each other. I’m thrilled to tell you my story. Basically, I grew up in a pretty non-diverse suburb of Chicago and hadn’t really examined my own personal position in the world as I was growing up. I did have a dream and a love, maybe bizarrely for Africa and working in Africa someday.
I had this extraordinary opportunity very early on out of undergrad to live and work in Dakar Senegal. I was sent over there by my first non-profit the International Women’s Media Foundation, to be setting up a center for African women journalists that we decided to base in Dakar instead of Johannesburg which is where everybody was really flooding into at that point. I think pretty early on having this opportunity to have some self-awareness and see myself, especially in the post-colonial African politics and realities, thinking about what privileges I have as a white person, as an American certainly and doing global work was super impactful for me. Besides that, just having this opportunity to do change work before the internet had really — and I’m really dating myself here, but before the internet had really taken place. So, we were really doing a lot of personal communication without the benefit of technology and that was extraordinarily challenging.
But I did that work and I was really inspired by women in particular and African women in the media. Looking at how change can really be impacted when we give marginalized voices more opportunities. I was very much impacted by that experience. What happened was I came back from doing this really important work, I was still in my mid-twenties if you can imagine and coming back to Washington in the year when just within, I think a 12-month period we lost James Byrd, Jr. was murdered in Texas in a hate crime; Matthew Shepard was killed; and then Columbine happened. I remember having come back from this extraordinary experience I was sitting at my desk in Washington and I thought, “I have to do something more personally to work on this issue of hate crimes.”
I knew enough about how this worked, at least I thought I did in my own mind, that it had to be strategic and working at a level where we were really preventing this kind of hate and hate crimes before it had a chance to root. For me that meant leaving Washington. I picked up and moved as only sometimes 20-year-old’s can and I moved out to Colorado. I started working with one of Matthew’s friends who was also in conversation with Matthew’s mom Judy Shepard about what to do in the aftermath of Matt’s death when there was this outpouring of emotion and really people wanting to do some work around hate crimes, but also at a broader level tolerance. We don’t call it that anymore, so obviously things have changed but this was really kind of an effort to work with young kids.
There were some teddy bears that had been made by artists in the memory of Matthew and other hate crime victims. To start going into schools and working on this issue of tolerance and belonging and respect. It was kind of a tough year trying to get this little non-profit off the ground. It didn’t actually get off the ground, so we gave the project back to Judy Shepard and it’s still a project of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. But it did cumulate in at the year anniversary of Matthew’s death a few of us walking from Fort Collins where he ended up dying to the fence in Laramie where he basically was tortured and killed.
When I think about walking on that road from Fort Collins to Laramie, it took us three days. People were cheering us, and people were spitting on us. It’s just reminding me a lot of kind of the current very difficult climate we’re in now in America especially, but certainly around the world and these challenging times. That was an extraordinary moment in my life. It also really reinforced that I’m the kind of person that to make things happen I like to jump in. I like to roll up my sleeves and get on the front lines of a really big change and make it happen.
When I came back from that experience, I actually had the opportunity to join Booz Allen Hamilton, which is a management consulting company. I was doing this really great work in communications and stakeholder engagement. It was at that time that I also again, in my twenties and in DC, I started dating women. I just remember being at the local lesbian night out at the bar and watching Ellen come out. It feels like the ’90s were this really fun and exciting time. Also, with The L Word and the way that the LGBTQ community was showing up in popular media was certainly exciting.
At the same time, I felt that my only option at that point was to identify as a lesbian to be out in the community in that way. I didn’t feel like there was a lot of breathing room to accommodate my whole experience and who I was which turned out to be something that started my journey on looking at myself and how I identify. Right at that time Booz Allen sent me to my first Out & Equal Conference. I had gone with some Booz Allen colleagues from the employer resource group, the GLOBE employee resource group. I actually lied to my gay male colleagues to tell them I was going to a different workshop and I snuck into the one workshop on bisexuality. This was in the early 2000s.
I’m still remembering that moment of fear that I had to hide within the community. It was a horrible feeling. I also remember the sheer joy and elation of when I walked into that room and actually met the only bisexuals I knew at that point, my first kind of friends in the community and realizing that this was something real for me. That I wasn’t monosexual and that I had this diversity in my identity and experience that I didn’t want to hide from anymore and I certainly wanted to stand up for this part of the community within the LGBTQ community.
I left Out & Equal; that did inspire me to really get ingrained in the organization. But more importantly I think at that moment, I went back to Booz Allen to our ERG meetings and I told everybody who I was. That at that point in time that I identified as bisexual. Even if I was the only one who was going to be out, that was really important to me that there was an integrity around inclusion that I wanted GLOBE to stand for. I had a good experience, I think. Although it was scary, I have to tell you and it wasn’t easy, but I’m proud to have taken advantage of that moment. It is certainly a story that I carry with me now that I’m the CEO of Out & Equal. I guess that’s the initial part of my journey into this world.
JENNIFER BROWN: Incredible. I know there’s additional aspects of your diversity. For example, I wanted to hear your reflections on being a parent also and how that has shaped your message as well. But I want to pause. You and I talk about the changing of language and how important it is, what it signals and the fact that I know we are both really excited about more language being better. More specific language about us and how we identify. Has bi morphed into other words? What are those more I suppose specific words that we use in the community because I do think a lot of us, even in the LGBTQ community and allies are struggling to understand it was bisexual or it was trans and now we have words like pansexual. We have words like queer. We have words like non-binary. How do you identify now? What do you call yourself?
ERIN URITUS: One thing I want to say and I’m just smiling as I talk about this, is when I came back from the Middle East which is where I spent nine years up until about two and a half years ago, it really hit me Jennifer, how like you said, how much and how quickly language is changing and the discussion about it that the nature of it is changing. I feel like there’s more breathing room now. I was really excited to have access to this new language and new labels, for lack of a better term with a little bit less sensitivity for myself around playing around with language and labels.
What I’ll tell you is that I still sometimes in some circles use the term bisexual. I’m very comfortable also and always have been with queer so I identify that way sometimes. More recently I guess, in light of a significant long-term relationship I had, I was kind of reflecting on my own patterns of attraction and I happened to be more of the time attracted to kind of transmasculine or butch women. This whole evolution about identity and not necessarily being constrained by the binary is very exciting to me. Pretty recently, I would say about a year ago like a lot of people listening to what’s happening in popular culture and the media, I learned about this term pansexual and I felt like, “That is really me.”
I use all three terms and depending on who I am talking to it may change, but I’m really comfortable with all three of those with probably most of my excitement being around pansexual.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that. There’s also polysexual which is different. We don’t have time to go into all the words that are out there. But I agree, that I really appreciate these new words and the specificity that is non-binary for all of us. Because, by the way, LGBT, just the letters I think, pushed us into this black-and-white binary that probably was not ever accurate but was a way of not only finding each other but certainly as being seen by the external world in a way that made it simpler. But you and I know, identity is not simple. It’s beautiful in its lack of simplicity. The continuum of sexual orientation is all the different people you can be attracted to.
You just say transmasculine and sort of your attraction habits or patterns. Someday and led by the younger contingent particularly, I think our generation is catching up, but someday all of this will be very comfortable. New York just added a third gender identifier for birth certificates. This is going to be par for the course in the future.
ERIN URITUS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s at just this very early stage.
ERIN URITUS: Right. If I can jump in on this, because I absolutely agree with you. I’m noting the same things and with enthusiasm. I’m super excited about it. I think it’s probably worth mentioning now there’s a study, a GLAAD Harris poll that was not even maybe more than a year or year and a half old that really hit home for me on my first year on this job because the data was so shocking and exciting to me. Which is that, and I may get the numbers wrong here, I just want to double check on this but I’m pretty sure that it’s accurate that what this particular study said was that 20% of Millennials identify as LGBTQ which may or may not be a surprise to folks. That was not a surprise to me. But what was really surprising, especially at the time I came on, is that 52% of Gen Z which are Parkland kids, it’s the kids that are right around the corner in the workforce and coming into workspaces and pretty quickly. 52% identified as either LGBTQ or not exclusively heterosexual.
What’s exciting about that to me, first of all it’s a huge jump in the numbers but also, the fact that the we started asking the question differently that gave people the opportunity to say both what I am and also what I’m not. I think that is just an interesting dynamic that young people bring to us right now is that they are shunning labels and being confined to anyone particular idea or identity and that there’s a lot more acceptance around fluidity. For me this is something in my 20s that really scared me, and I felt hampered me and how I came out. Right now, I just feel really excited to connect with young people about how they’re experiencing their identity and how they talk about it.
It’s something that for Out & Equal again, these are young people that are moving into the workforce and it’s showing up. It’s showing up in dress code. It’s not just bathrooms, it’s showing up in dress codes. It’s showing up in how we all feel like we belong or not and so I’m super excited about that.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that you just said that. The not exclusively heterosexual, the twist in that, the way that question was ask, you’re right.
ERIN URITUS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s the reverse but somehow it opens up a whole gamut of possibilities for people to answer that question differently and get more of an accurate picture. What did we always say back in the day? 10% of the population we thought was LGBT and that was kind of what we hung our hat on. We meaning I think, my generation and yours. Now we have just so much more nuances. I wanted to point out that you are, I think, the only leader of a national LGBTQ advocacy organization who identifies as you do. I really welcome that. I think that in the corporate space which is where I focus and I know you’re super comfortable in as well, we are so behind the curve. I want to segue into the amazing and important and enormous conference that you’ve inherited and done an incredibly job with by the way. I just thought the last Summit was just phenomenal in Seattle last fall.
ERIN URITUS: Thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: How many thousands of us coming together and having you on the stage and telling the story that you in parts just told and opening up the aperture for us and for corporations in particular who write those big checks for that conference. Who are really, in their corporate way, struggling to even say the word queer or Q which makes many generations uncomfortable because of the negative connotations of the word. But then you’ve got a young workforce coming in saying, “This is actually our favorite term,” because it addresses all the things that we’ve been talking about. Tell us about your first year at the helm of Out & Equal? Who did you want to include or introduce that was really important to you that hadn’t been part of our conversation? I would say that we are all corporate advocates, that’s the community around and allies by the way, a huge amount of allies. In fact, what percentage of your conference is allies? Do you have that number off the top of your head?
ERIN URITUS: 28% identified as allies in the 2018 Summit. That’s a great number.
JENNIFER BROWN: I think that’s just going to continue to grow. When you kind of got your hands around this and said, “This is my vision for what this community can really be in the world and what this conference needs to be.” Then, “Where do I need to bring these companies and their employees?” Who, I think, are so hungry for — I don’t know if I can say we’re hungry for change, because we don’t like change partially. Particularly workplaces and corporations are kind of resistant, I think, to a lot of it but you’ve got this conference full of people that are impatient for change at the same time. These are all people who are agitating within the four walls, trying to get their companies to do more, to say more, to take positions, to be more intersectional, to be more inclusive around non-binary identities. To just get with the program.
It’s hard when you have every bank in the word in the audience and yet some of the banks are some of the greatest on this which is always a surprising thing that I share. I work with a lot of them. I always try to share it’s not always the companies that you think are really progressive on this. As you stepped on that stage and you thought about, “What do I really need to get across that’s new, that’s challenging for people, that’s going to really catapult us as a community to what we can do and what we should be focusing on?”
ERIN URITUS: I just love that question because it does give me this opportunity to bring your audience into what for me, felt like a very vulnerable moment at the beginning of my tenure here. That was really this idea of how do we bring other elements of ourselves as human beings and as professionals into the dialog. I think that these are the areas that are often and largely untapped to keep pushing forward diversity work. Diversity work is not — I think in its essence it is about policies and it is about training, but it is also about stories and human connection.
One of the things I felt like I needed to be brave about but also that I was super excited about at the beginning of my tenure was a few different dynamics happening in the world that I felt like I really wanted Out & Equal to be on the forefront of. Number one, is again like you said, the community is really changing and becoming more diverse. It was really important to me personally that if we were going to stand up for and fight for LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace that we were really holding a space of integrity with that and encouraging others to really be inclusive.
How this has shown up this year is encouraging ERG and leaders to think about if they’re including all of the letters and all of the parts of our community in their acts and in their work and not just in lip service. That was really exciting for me to tell that part of my kind of bisexual queer pansexual identity and how that’s evolved.
I will tell you Jennifer, there is a lot of engrained trepidation in me about telling that story even though it’s 20 years old just because it was such a painful experience for me. But when I got up on stage at many of our events and I just authentically started talking about my journey and the fact that it’s still something I’m working on every day and finding the language and synthesizing my experience. What that did was it opened up this dialog between Out & Equal and our stakeholders that’s felt really exciting.
A lot of people have come out to me personally as something slightly different than how they’re known in their ERGs or in their company. It could be trans, it could be bi, it could even be poly. There’s a lot of stuff coming up around people’s love and relationships and how that shows up in the workplace and so that’s felt really exciting. The other thing you mentioned is that I think you’re right I may be either the only one or one of the only people that identify as bi, pan or queer at the national level. But also, I am a mother, a single mother of two girls who happened to be biracial. I had my little girls overseas. They are half Arab, they’re have Egyptian. I’m a single mom that’s working really hard to kind of have balance in my life.
I think being a woman, being a mother allowed me to be able to speak to people in our constituency whose identity as a parent has not always shown up. You talk about this. I love that you address this on your show so much Jennifer. I think there is something very real to being a woman and, in many cases, just a parent and having sometimes to hide our identities as working parents that have felt really constrictive in the past and painful sometimes. To get up there on the stage and talk about my identity as a parent was important.
I also talked about being a person of faith and having the experience I did out in Colorado and connecting with, for me it happened to be the Unitarian community which is a really progressive kind of liberal faith community. But even just starting this conversation about faith, or I should say not starting it but carrying this conversation forward about faith and how it shows up in the workplace. In these times that was not easy.
I invited, for example, Reverend Rob Hardies (ph.), who happens to be the minister at our Unitarian Church, to come and talk about this. It resonated really strongly with some LGBTQ people who have felt like they needed to hide whatever faith they come from or if they’re spiritual people. That it can’t come up in conversations. On the other hand, I think, it really challenged some people who have been hurt in their faith communities in the past. I just want to recognize that I know this is a journey for people that looks very different but that I really wanted Out & Equal to have integrity in this idea of inclusion and that it can’t just be we accept you but, or that it’s okay but you can’t be republican. We include LGBTQ but I don’t really want to talk about the B. I really want us to be having these brave conversations.
Thank you for that. Then the other person I’ll mention that I really tried to bring into the dialog is somebody hugely impactful for me is Dr. Brené Brown. Many of your listeners and people you come in contact with, she’s so out there right now in the media and having huge impact and these big conversations around authenticity and belonging. It really impacted us in wanting to bring this into the corporate workspace and having this very specific conversation Jennifer, and I know you and I have talked about this a lot but it’s really driving us forward and companies forward on this continuum; diversity is about having diverse people in the room, in the seats. Inclusion is taking that a step further where companies have the right policies, they’re putting money into ERGs, etc. Belonging is like this new really exciting frontier for me and for Out & Equal to be working with companies to be identifying what that means really.
Belonging for me is not a warm hug. It’s not this touchy-feely soft thing where we just get together and support each other. For me belonging in the corporate workspace is a very smart and strategic focus now on healthy productive corporate culture. It’s about what all employees at every level are doing to support each other even when the company is not looking, or even when they may not have gone through diversity training. That, I think, for all of us who are doing this work and like you are Jennifer, I think that is the new frontier that is really going to push all this work forward.
Yeah, that’s some of the new things we’ve tried to incorporate this year. I think it has really resonated with people. I think people are meeting us in this space in super exciting ways and with a lot of emotion.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s long overdue. I think there’s allegation of I think even the LGBTQ community not being inclusive frankly. I know you and I are passionate about creating spaces for communities that haven’t been heard or centered within that community, for example, women and people of color to name a few and other intersectional identities, disabilities. I think your vision, one of the many things I’m so excited about what you’re going to bring is a commitment to creating a dialog and a focus on those pieces. Like many movements, movements sometimes tend to be dominated by those with the most privilege perhaps.
When we talk about gay marriage, for whom was gay marriage a priority and who fought that battle? In our community it’s a little bit of inside baseball. But I think that we have some other issues. When people say for example to me, “What’s our next issue that we need to put on the radar screen in my company?” Because we already got gay marriage so is our work done kind of thing. It’s like I know you’re not going to let that stand because a bunch of us know how many voices haven’t even been heard or registered within the community. All that beautiful intersectionality that needs to be not only honored but honestly be brought to the forefront. I hope I see greater diversity in those who are showing up as part of the LGBTQ and allies communities in the workplace.
That we see more of that ethnic diversity. We see more abilities. We see veterans. We see tons of allies of all different identities kind of stepping forward. We all have a level of privilege no matter who we are. I loved Amber Hikes. She did an episode with me that’s coming out soon. She is the Philadelphia Mayor’s LGBTQ community liaison and she spoke at Out & Equal probably thanks to Erin and your foresight. But she talked about, “Here’s I as a queer woman of color. Here’s all of my privileges and here’s how I can use my voice in the world.” It was just this really special moment to me because we do all have tools in our arsenal. All of the pieces that make us who we are come with their own responsibilities I think and opportunities.
ERIN URITUS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right.
ERIN URITUS: I’m so glad you brought Amber up and some of these other speakers that are coming to mind. One of our proudest moments I think this year as an organization was how more and more diversity kind of showed up and in different spaces at Summit this year. Amber, if you’re listening, I’m like your biggest fan and she knows it. There’re so many exciting things about Amber and I think that the diversity she represents how she has come out as queer, I think being so in touch with kind of the younger crowd that’s coming out. But one of the things that I think is often maybe underplayed or not recognized as much is that there is outside of what this exciting moment in corporate activism and advocacy, Amber really represents someone who could not probably be doing a better job of managing this transformational change at the city level and in government.
She’s kind of at the crux of really important stakeholders. Whether it’s about having brown and black added to the flag or making sure that policy and training and the educational awareness of civic employees is happening. I think that is also an experience in diversity that is really important. Nyle DiMarco is also up on stage giving a talk that you might remember. He’s deaf, he’s a queer activist. He has won dancing with the stars and he was kind of out there as a celebrity. Nyle gave his entire speech in sign language and I think there was this moment that I remember watching him and listening to him where the whole audience was engaged. All of our senses were engaged in a different way. Besides Nyle being deaf and kind of representing a certain part of the community, I think the experience of watching somebody communicate differently and listening to them in different ways challenged the entire audience at a different level. That was really exciting.
It is something that I’m glad you recognize. I really appreciate it. I think we’ve worked hard on that and Out & Equal is just going to continue to move in that direction because of everything you said. I think listening and having historically marginalized voices represented, it is real and it’s critical that we put our money where our mouth is and that we work really hard to make these experiences happen and have these diverse kinds of dialogs.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. That’s a nice segue actually into what I wanted to talk about with you too. I know you’re a fan of a Harvard Business Review piece on the new power which I think is from 2014, but obviously, more relevant than ever. I wanted to ask you, I know that has informed how you created your vision for Out & Equal and you related that concept to what Out & Equal needs to go after in a way, is galvanizing, empowering, channeling that new power that the article talks about. I’d love to hear your thoughts related to that on how are you holding corporations’ feet to the fire in a way? I think a lot about, and I notice and watch very closely how companies are shifting their awareness about their role and utilizing their platforms whether it’s in ads for example, that hopefully they can back up with real action internally.
One of my favorite examples is Audi’s ad on the Super Bowl last year. It’s this beautiful piece, it has such an inclusive message and then lo and behold you find out they have no gender ethnic diversity on their board or in their management team. We have no idea what their culture is like at work every single day. We have companies that are, I think, giving some lip service, maybe not walking the talk fully. Maybe just still figuring out how to walk the talk. When you’re 300,000 people that is not an easy thing globally, right?
ERIN URITUS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: But I know that you’ve got all these huge companies at this conference and that’s one of the things that I plug into at Out & Equal because I’m really paying attention to how are companies morphing and changing or hoping to adjust to this new power? This concept of where whether we call it grassroots, bottom up, crowd sourced customer-based sort of thinking about an outside in who are we the company in the context of what’s happening in society? Also, what do our employees want us to be? How do they want to feel that sense of belonging here? If we’re missing the mark on that we’re going to lose all of them and I think they all know that and they’re really struggling to figure out how do we quickly turn on a dime to get the competitive advantage, to capitalize on the cultural moment and to strike the right tone and make sure that we’re not just going for PR but we’re walking the talk?
I know your conference kind of brings all these pieces together because you see the big companies in the room. They really want to do the LGBTQ thing right, but I think the bigger thing going on is that LGBTQ is a symptom, or a tip of the iceberg vis-à-vis what companies are doing more broadly for inclusiveness. It’s a great bellwether to look at I think for how are we treating women? How are you treating your LGBTQ employees? How do they feel about working there? How do your customers feel about how you behave in the marketplace? There’s this wonderful accountability starting to happen with transparency and the new power of having a voice from different places that I think is really a moment of truth for companies. Some are embracing it; some are avoiding it I think to their peril.
ERIN URITUS: Yeah, good luck with that. No, I agree with you and I love this opportunity to talk about new power because you’re right. For me personally, it was an article like you said, that was published in 2014 out of HBR. We used it as kind of the philosophical underpinning of a previous organization I had worked with because our stakeholders and the demographics were really changing. I was hugely inspired by it. Just for your audience who have not come across this, in its essence new power is really about the convergence and leveraging the power and possibilities of technology with the marketplace or people’s expectations of being cocreators of programs and services.
People want to be involved. At its core it’s really about organizations like Out & Equal repositioning themselves a bit and instead of either sitting in an ivory tower and instead of top down or inside out, pushing these things out and saying, “This is the content. These are the policies. This is what you need to do.” It’s really positioning ourselves at the center of what I think of as a learning community. Putting on these amazing events like Summit but also doing things like we’re working with JP Morgan’s Force for Good program this year which I’m really extraordinarily excited about and proud of, to launch a digital space where after Summit and in between Out & Equal events that people can keep this dialog going about best practices and LGBTQ equality. In fact, just equality and inclusion more broadly.
I think your point about intersectionality is right, it’s not going anywhere. It needs to be engrained and be more than lip service for everybody otherwise it will be at companies peril to not do that. We’re launching into this new way of being here. I think it’s repositioning us at the center, convening conversations, of recognizing that. It’s absolutely not just us doing this work but that there’s a lot of magic happening out there in the tentacles of D & I implementation and we want to create a space now that leverages new powers. It’s essentially will be a centralized repository for best practices. It will also allow for ongoing dialog around certain either identities or topics. Like self ID for example, there could be a thread of discussion happening throughout the year where people are saying, “Okay, there’s this tool kit, or this tool or process that’s out there,” but people talking to each other without Out & Equal getting in the way but convening these dialogs so that the effort and focus can really be on implementation and helping people not have to reinvent the wheel. Just getting smarter, learning from others, paying it forward in some respect and then we’re all really helping each other move in the same direction.
New Power is a book our entire board has read. We’ve really embraced this idea. It has a lot to do with engagement. One thing I want to say Jennifer, that is really exciting to me you were asking me about how we’re either holding a company’s feet to the fire or they’re holding themselves accountable, there are a lot of people now in D & I work that I think are really understanding new power and starting to integrate it with the possibilities of intersectionality in companies. Brian Reaves who is the Head of Diversity for Dell for example, he’s a Stanford guy, he’s really an expert in design thinking and Brian is somebody who is using design thinking, which is a very inclusive process in creating and pushing Dell to keep doing diversity work in super creative ways. He’s involved all of the ERGs in this process around the world in a very methodical way to get the whole system talking about pushing this work forward.
I do think that people get it. At it’s very essence, new power and the way we need to move forward is really leveraging the power of your employees and of the whole. Companies need to listen to people. ERGs need to listen. You’ll laugh about this because you probably also get this same question, but I often get the question about what can we do to attract more queer or bi people into our ERG and what do you think the issues are? People are asking me this and my automatic question back to them is, “Have you asked them? Have you advertised yourself as being bi or queer inclusive?” Or, whatever people are trying to work on to round out their own diversity.
I just think that sometimes we make it too complicated and that it really starts with companies but also ERGs and individuals really listening to each other. I think one of the most powerful questions we can ask of one another with an open heart and mind and really listening is, “Tell me what it’s like to be you? Tell me what it’s like to be a bi person in this company? What is it like for you? What’s your daily experience like?” I think the more and more we really start listening it’s going to help kind of up and down the chain and help keep pushing D & I work forward. I’m super excited about this trend that I’m seeing.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s great. I feel like you and I have always been aligned for many years even though our lives took us far apart from each other.
ERIN URITUS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: I was similarly captured by the fact that ERGs has such potential to contribute and to be listened to and to almost be a truth serum for the company. They’re an internal group of people so passionate about having their voice heard, supporting their community and making the company better and a source of innovation as well. I’m really glad to hear that Dell is utilizing these naturally diverse groups by the way, to problem solve, to innovate. Hopefully they’re applying their energies not just around questions of diversity but questions around the business. That they’re solving persistent problems whether it’s a competitive landscape analysis, or a product design, or whatever.
Diversity networks or we call them employee resource groups for folks that are listening that don’t know what these are, they’re identity groups in corporations. The LGBTQ groups alone in corporate are thousands and thousands of people in some of the companies Erin and I know well and lots of allies as we talked about earlier. In fact, in some cases mostly allies. But these groups are so powerful from a knowledge perspective. They have tons of passion and energy and they happen to also be what I call an unofficial pipeline. They are the pipeline of diverse talent that everybody kind of throws their hands up and say, “Where are the fill in the blank. I can’t find enough women in tech.” Or, “I’m looking for employees of color.”
There’s a lot of foe, I don’t know if it’s resistance, it’s certainly excuses because I know where all of them are. They’re in your companies and they’re trying like heck to stay at your company because, by the way, unconscious bias is still rampant everywhere and there are a million microinequities. I call it death by 1,000 cuts that happen to a lot of us on a daily basis. It’s hard when you’re in the minority or in a marginalized group at a company and typically large companies but even small companies and startups where you feel like, “Why do I do this every day? I may as well go and start my own venture. I may as well go and become an entrepreneur.” I think a lot of people are making that choice.
I personally know entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone and owning your own business isn’t for everyone and I want companies to retain that talent because we desperately need companies to use their voice particularly in the world right now. We haven’t even talked about politics and we try not to on The Will to Change. But I think private enterprise, believe it or not, we need the corporate voice to standup for equality. Many have and it’s been a really amazing couple of years to watch companies step forward. CEOs do that as well. I know a lot of those CEOs are very deeply involved with Out & Equal too. They make time to show up and speak from the stage. Who are your favorites, off the top of your head? I know you mentioned JP Morgan Chase, they’re amazing. Wells Fargo is a client of mine that I think is doing a whole lot?
ERIN URITUS: Oh gosh, it would be so hard for me to single even a few out. My experience, to be really honest with you this year is that I’ve just been getting into contact with companies that I’ve been really, really impressed with that are trying to push the envelope. They’ve even been out there for a long time whether it be Microsoft, or IBM, some of these companies who have been devoted for a very long time. There are too many companies to mention because I’ve just spent the year really embedding with and understanding how people are driving things forward in this very difficult climate.
I’ll say what’s been so encouraging to me is that whether it’s companies who have been around a really long time like Microsoft or IBM, Dell, companies who have been pushing this work forward for a long time or even new companies that area showing up in new and strong ways like Cracker Barrel who won an award at this year’s Summit for really getting their feet wet in this work and pushing forward from the inside. So, it’s hard to mention even just a handful. There are so many companies that I think are really on the right track.
I think that’s largely in part Jennifer, due to the times we’re living in and the opportunities that are coming out of some political and cultural difficulty. There are a lot of people that are inspired and compelled to stand up for inclusion. I started in January, Parkland happened pretty quickly afterwards, and you definitely saw a trend in what some people call activism other people call it corporate advocacy, but people standing up in really brave ways to make sure that their investment in diversity was not going to take a step backwards. I just think that the conversation feels very exciting. It feels grounded in action and in pushing forward and not going backward.
I think I’m also feeling this collaborative spirit amongst companies and with organizations like ours. Out & Equal is working more closely with its counterparts in LGBTQ activism like HRC and NGLCC. I think in tough times the opportunity this affords us is a lot of collaboration and to avoid reinventing the wheel, so we all move forward together. These are just some of the exciting things I’m keeping my eye on this year.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. I know I’m asked a lot, “Are you seeing diversity budgets, for example, decreasing?” I say, “No, way.” I think companies are viewing this more and more as a competitive advantage and taking it on like you said and doing more. You’re probably just drinking from a firehose which is such a great thing to be hearing so many stories of courage and real concrete commitments being made from the top that are so numerous that you can’t even count them. You and I know, I think because we see the window into these worlds that a lot of other people don’t, it’s such a privileged place to be but it’s really deeply encouraging.
I agree with you. I feel when people bad mouth corporations or corporate jobs or whatever, like I was talking about not everybody being fit for an entrepreneur, I think companies are incredible places to build your career. Maybe you’ll go out and start your own thing and then you’ll come back. Maybe you’ll become a customer. Maybe you’ll get hired. But you always want to make wherever you bloom, or you’re planted, you always want to make your workplace a better place around you. I think we, as a community, the LGBTQ community has created so much good pressure and so much change. I do not take for granted how much I’ve learned from watching how that change has happened. From policies, to benefits, to training, to taking a stance on social issues that companies wouldn’t have ever dreamed of doing years ago.
I think it’s a really inspiring story. I don’t acknowledge the cynicism although I do have my moments where capitalism feels like it’s sort of thwarting inclusiveness at every turn. I do know we have brave champions in every executive team in all of these companies. They may not be the majority but they’re there.
ERIN URITUS: Let me just jump in here because I think this is a thread that is so important and exciting that I would just love for more and more people to know about it. We often talk about D & I work between you and I or just in the circles that we run around in, in a domestic way so US centric. But one of the most exciting trends that we are seeing and that we are really going to drive forward even more this year is how multinational corporations that are invested in D&I work, that believe in LGBTQ equality, supporting them and helping make change happen in other countries that have been very harmful to our community or restrictive, this is some of the most exciting work I’ve seen happening. Whether it’s Dell, or HP, or JP Morgan, or some of the other big multinationals, they have such extraordinary power and presence in companies like Brazil, India and China, which are countries where we do this work, that I think it’s really underappreciated.
I want to try and tell this story in bigger ways this year on just how impactful that is on the lives of not just employees but has a ripple effect when they go back into their communities. We were in India this year and just a few weeks after that the LGBTQ community was decriminalized in India. For some employees who worked for these multinationals it is the only place they can be out and safe. They go back to their temples, or their churches, and in their families and because of where the culture may be it is either unsafe or an unhappy place for them to be. I just see a lot of motion and power and how MNCs are showing up and pushing equality overseas. We’re absolutely going to be supporting that this year in big ways. That’s another thing I wanted to mention.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for doing that. We all have so much to learn. We take so much for granted in the US in terms of our safety.
ERIN URITUS: Right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Erin, thank you so much for joining us. I wanted you to recap the dates for Summit in the fall. You also have an Executive Forum coming up in April. Also, just what can you direct our listeners to, to make sure they’re keeping up with your activities?
ERIN URITUS: Thank you so much for that. Like you mentioned, we’re doing Executive Forum which a much smaller event and it’s more focused on leadership. That’s April 17th through the 19th. Then Summit this year, which is going to be in DC, is going to be October 14th through the 17th people. Many people who join us year after year, it’s slightly later, it’s two weeks later than Seattle was in the calendar year, but these events are going to continue to be even more diverse cutting-edge bringing people like you Jennifer, to be speaking and interacting with people on things like leadership day. We’re doing a lot more mass participation and interactive activity at these events. It’s really great. There’s a lot of magic moments that tend to impact people for the rest of their lives. Then you’re part of our family and helping be part of the machine that’s helping all this great work to happen. We’d be delighted for anybody listening, go to our website, you can follow and see when and how these activities are happening. We would just love for people to join us this year. It’s going to be another great year.
JENNIFER BROWN: Please know all allies are welcome and even allies in training.
ERIN URITUS: That’s right.
JENNIFER BROWN: Even if you don’t know what that word means, but I doubt we have any folks on my podcast that don’t know what that is. Anyway Erin, thank you for everything you do, for your voice in the world. I’m just so excited to see, with your help, where this community can really have greater impact because I know there’s so much goodness and so much heart and so much courage in every diverse community. The LGBTQ community has perhaps the battle scars and the adversity that we face, but there’s such beauty in that adversity. We focus a lot on that in The Will to Change. I personally consider it a gift to have the identity that I do and love the person that I love. It’s enabled so much wisdom for me and so much opportunity and so much community. I know you feel the same. I want to underscore to everybody listening that you are so welcome at the Summit. You will learn so much about diversity and inclusion in general from this community and all the conversations and breakouts and things. Let me give that commercial.
ERIN URITUS: Jennifer, I’m just again, honored and thank you so much for having me on today. I’ve followed your show for a long time and you, and I have been friends for a long time. The work you’re doing is so important and I’m just really grateful for you and the work you do. Thanks for having me on today. Yeah, looking forward to a great year ahead together. We’re both allies in this fight.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, we are.
ERIN URITUS: It’s going to be a great year.
JENNIFER BROWN: All right. Thanks, Erin.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thanks, Jennifer.