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Author Farzana Nayani: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Be civically engaged. Beyond the workplace, each individual can get involved with community organizations, programs, and political campaigns related towards education, action, and policy change. It takes a concerted effort from a large group of individuals to make impact, but starting with discussions with neighbors and friends, or volunteering with your local non-profit or donating to charitable organizations can make a big difference. We each must voice our concerns through our votes, our dollars, and also through where we spend our energy. The time, talent, and treasure that each of us can offer accumulates and can create large impact.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Farzana Nayani.

Farzana Nayani is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant, executive coach, author, and international keynote speaker. She is an advisor on organizational strategy, and an advocate for self-empowerment and increased resources for underrepresented communities. Her book The Power of Employee Resource Groups: How People Create Authentic Change was released in June 2022. For more information visit: www.farzananayani.com

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in a multicultural and multifaith household. My parents are both immigrants, my mother is from the Philippines and my father is from Pakistan with roots in India. I was born in Canada where I grew up, went to school, and worked until I did my graduate degree at the University of Hawai’i. I have lived in Los Angeles for 16 years, where I am currently located. Having this global mindset and being exposed to a variety of cultures at a very young age has created a natural empathy for me in finding connectedness with others.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I was in college, I took a literature class as part of my minor in English. My professor was a newer faculty member, a woman of German background named Dr. Gabriele Helms. On the first day of class, she shockingly cast aside the mainstream course reading list that had originally been assigned to the course not by her, and instead replaced it with her own list which included authors from underrepresented communities. She told all of us if we had a problem with that, we could leave. I stayed. This moment changed my life. I was introduced to writing I would never have been exposed to, stories where I could see myself and my family. One of the books on that list was No New Land by M.J. Vassanji which talked about creating home in new places and yearning for home. I did an assignment related to this book and I recall in that class walking up to the library bookshelf, discovering a whole section on identity and hybridity that I didn’t know existed. I had no idea that that moment sparked my entire direction into exploring belonging, intersectionality, and how to create communities in places where one may feel othered. This is absolutely what my focus is, in my work with diversity, equity, and inclusion. I will forever be grateful for this professor’s choice to go against the established norms so stories of people like my family could be centered. I hope this can be an inspiration for others, that any single action can create such a huge ripple effect, and what we read shapes who we are and how we see the world.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

My life lesson quote is from Beyonce, from an interview by a major magazine about her work as a performing artist and as a businesswoman. She mentioned her new clothing line IVY PARK and what courage it took for her to believe in herself to have a clothing line of her own. I thought to myself “this is Beyonce, she can do anything, and even she has that hesitation!” It made me realize that no matter who we are, we are all human and have our own internalized mental limitations, but we need to overcome that and try for what seems unattainable. The specific line I remember the most from the interview was when she was talking about what a perfectionistic she is about her music and how nervous she gets before a song is released; she tells herself “it doesn’t belong to me anymore”, and how, once it is released, listeners and the public hold it. That’s how I feel about my work, my writing, my coaching, my public talks — once they are out in the world, they belong to everyone. This perspective has helped me overcome the feeling of everything needing to be perfect. It’s more about the experience it creates for people, the moment of awareness when people come into contact with my work, and how it can transform perspectives. That is what I live by — that my work belongs to the community and anyone who interacts with it — that they will feel a sense of connection to the stories and ideas from it, to be inspired on their own.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Sometimes we see the stereotype of a leader as someone who is hard-charging, and opinionated, and forceful or aggressive. To me, real leadership starts with listening and observing those around you, and truly understanding the issues and concerns that are at hand. The goal is to offer solutions that involve the entire team and community, not just a handful of people. Another part of leadership is knowing yourself first. This clarity can help you determine what values you rise from, and this can help with decision-making in key moments, especially when it goes against the grain of what people expect of you.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

As a former athlete, I was taught by my coaches about visualization, and imagining the experience before and as it happens, whether it be making a play or scoring a goal. My preparation for a big talk or meeting is the mental visualization of what a successful outcome looks like. In my work today, colleagues tell me that I have a photographic memory, but reflecting on this further, I believe it is the practice of visualization that has been a tremendous tool for me to connect and deepen my presence with a topic and group, and connect with the content I am delivering.

My journey over the years has also been to intently understand myself in order to better show up in the world for others. This has led me to focus on my own ancestral heritage and traditions of inner connection and healing. I have been taught by elders and guides about how to maintain clear energy in a room and how to instill healthy boundaries so I am not overwhelmed or overburdened, as the work I do with diversity, equity, and inclusion consulting can be very emotionally draining for anyone involved. I make sure I ground myself by going into nature before or after a big event, or even on the grounds of the hotel I am staying at or in my own backyard. Taking a break and having the sun hit my body helps relieve a lot of the stress and energy that I could be holding, and really recharges me.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. In the summer of 2020, the United States faced a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on what made the events of 2020 different from racial reckonings in the past?

The timing of the terrible murder of George Floyd and other tragic deaths had so much attention as many of us were in the social distancing and stay-at-home mandates due to the pandemic. Largely, all live social and entertainment gatherings were cancelled, to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. There was more intense global attention paid to these news events with less distraction, and the calls for racial equity and justice were amplified by the far-reaching effects of social media. Many people of all backgrounds were motivated to examine and interrogate current systems of power and privilege, as their foundations were rattled and turned upside-down, anyways, due to the pandemic. The result was a snowball effect of protests by people who have simply had enough, and it also mobilized groups that normally wouldn’t be on the front lines of racial equity as a cause. There was much pressure from the general public and employees within companies to do something, causing a frenzy of commitments, actions, donations, and policy changes towards access and equity. There is still more work to be done, and the need for sustained effort to keep up these commitments, but it definitely was a watershed moment for many organizations and cities around the world.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

My consulting and coaching work on a daily basis involves advising company leaders and councils about how to support diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace. The work involves a combination of strategic initiatives, as well as the individual journey of personal development. A combination of these efforts is the formula for effectiveness for any DEI effort. I have seen many instances where a handful of leaders at a company are dedicated and involved, but there isn’t the buy-in across the entire organization. This is detrimental to the success of the actions taken, and ultimately affects the long-term sustainability of these initiatives. If you don’t have commitment across the board, the approach will flop. What is missing here is the connection to why these initiatives are important, how they relate to individual leaders and departments, and what could be the impact if we don’t initiate these actions. A combination of these perspectives are needed to make sure there is deep understanding and connectedness to the vision and implementation of the plan. This is the key to success and impact, and is also where many organizations come to us for help because they have stalled along the way.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

The more diverse our executive team is, the more we have access to ideas, thinking, and connections to communities that our organizations would like to reach. Even if the executive team is not diverse in identity, the lens of inviting in perspectives that may not be in the room is really the winning advantage. People sometimes view DEI work as an exercise of filling quotas, and it is absolutely not that. What we all need and appreciate is the recognition of what perspectives and communities may not be at the table, and to make sure we account for them, not matter who is in leadership.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

The 5 steps to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society include the following recommendations:

Listen and offer empathy. As leaders, understanding the needs and concerns of individuals and groups around you is critical to setting the foundation for open communication and feedback. This is essential to making sure your actions are both responding to the needs of the moment as well as communicating a pledge to the engagement, safety, and value of employees, and betterment of society overall. It also helps identify any concerns that may bubble to the surface by individuals and groups who culturally don’t express themselves outwardly or who may feel shame in doing so. Being keenly aware of the cultural and interpersonal dynamics that could be going on through listening and observing will allow you to offer empathy in the appropriate way.

Maintain consistency in commitment. The key to forging a path forward that is steadfast and sustainable is ensuring that dedicated efforts continue, and do not wane, despite an issue not being immediately in the news. Employees will value a long-term approach that can weather the storm of urgent news cycles and that demonstrates a connection to an organization’s deeper values and goals.

Define purpose. One reason diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives fail is because those who are resistant or reluctant don’t have a clear relationship to the purpose behind them. Once an intentional and outward connection is made between the DEI effort and key stakeholders, the process is strengthened because more people understand and are brought into the value the effort can bring. This of course can be an intrinsic reason. But, if there is no personal connection, then the hard reality is that people will not be on board. Clarity of purpose and impact is essential.

Chart progress and feasible milestones. What does an inclusive and equitable environment mean to you and those around you? How is that defined? Clearly determining progress towards goals, and the objectives along the way, can help reinforce success. It can be challenging to keep the energy up if there isn’t a benchmark to start from, nor an idea of what success looks like along the way. Take the time to identify what these benchmarks look like for your team, in order to have a sense of ownership from all involved.

Be civically engaged. Beyond the workplace, each individual can get involved with community organizations, programs, and political campaigns related towards education, action, and policy change. It takes a concerted effort from a large group of individuals to make impact, but starting with discussions with neighbors and friends, or volunteering with your local non-profit or donating to charitable organizations can make a big difference. We each must voice our concerns through our votes, our dollars, and also through where we spend our energy. The time, talent, and treasure that each of us can offer accumulates and can create large impact.

We are going through a rough period now. What makes you optimistic about the future of the US? Can you please explain?

We are currently in such a large state of polarization, with people taking sides on various issues related to civil rights and political stances. Each of our communities is still challenged by the global pandemic, economic challenges, and environmental concerns. However, I am optimistic by the movements of people who are making a difference through the raising of global consciousness and connecting with others to rally around causes. There definitely is no longer apathy. We may be fatigued, but we care. There are enough people who can approach these issues with waves of support and intentional action towards a positive outcome and solution.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

It would be incredible to have a private breakfast or lunch with Shiza Shahid! She is the co-founder and former CEO of the Malala Fund and is also is a successful entrepreneur. We met once briefly at a conference and I was very inspired to see her speak on stage. It is always amazing to connect with women of color leaders and she is someone I’d like to get to know more and learn from her personal and professional journey, and also share more in the common heritage that we have. Here is her Twitter handle! Shiza — it would be wonderful to meet with you!!

How can our readers follow you online?

I invite readers to keep in touch with me by joining my email newsletter at www.farzananayani.com or connecting with me on social media — all my handles are @farzananayani on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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