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Bitly’s Jackie Cureton: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many leaders over the years in the workplace and notable leaders in society. The best leaders are authentic and make it about their people and not them. How do people feel once they’ve been in your space? Did they feel seen, heard, valued? Even in tough conversations? It is a real time, moment by moment intentional act of true leadership.

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 Jackie Cureton. Jackie is the Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Bitly, the world’s leading customer connection platform. She has more than 15 years of expertise in diversity and inclusion, human capital management, organizational effectiveness and team building. Jackie holds a certificate in Diversity and Inclusion from Cornell University, is credentialed by the HR Certificate Institute (HRCI) and earned her undergraduate degree from State University of New York Empire State College and her MBA from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University.

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 Nairobi, Kenya in a large family of 9 and, as you can imagine, a lot of fun and fights came from that. My siblings and I loved to read — and do to this day. You see, our father had instilled in us the importance of education and a love for reading. Growing up, I didn’t know or experience limits because of the color of my skin until I migrated to the US. I grew up seeing leaders around me who looked like me and so didn’t have too many limits on what I wanted to or could be. This is not to say that we don’t have issues in Africa that need to be resolved.

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?

As I mentioned, I loved to read so there are a few. The ones that come to mind include ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ — it gave me some understanding around the dynamics I was experiencing because of my race. I also loved the Color Purple — for the deep story that speaks to the layers of humanity. I also really enjoyed Frank McCourt’s biography, Angela’s Ashes — so many similarities to what I’ve seen in different settings and it reminded me of how we are more connected than we think.

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

“One shovel at a time.” This is something I say to my daughter all the time as a lesson on how to deal with daunting problems or anything that seems too big in the moment. Some years back, as a favor, I agreed to shovel the driveway for a friend who was traveling. Now based on the forecast, I expected a dusting or maybe a couple of inches. We ended up getting about two feet! I had no idea where to start, if I should start or even how to start. Even though I had a perfect excuse not to do it, I wanted to keep my word. And so I finally looked down and decided: “I don’t care what direction, I am going to focus on one shovel at a time and stop when I can’t any longer.” And that’s how it got done. That focus put me in the moment and I let go of the overwhelming feeling of the overall task at hand. I’ve learned to see this in insurmountable challenges — sometimes it is best to look at what’s right in front of you, deal with it and move on. So long as you keep moving, you will accomplish your goal. I see this play out personally and in the workplace.

My daughter’s favorite, which is also a favorite of mine, is “ When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression”. I don’t know who to attribute for the quote, but it is profound and I see it play out all the time.

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

I’ve had the opportunity to work with many leaders over the years in the workplace and notable leaders in society. The best leaders are authentic and make it about their people and not them. How do people feel once they’ve been in your space? Did they feel seen, heard, valued? Even in tough conversations? It is a real time, moment by moment intentional act of true leadership.

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?

I have a few daily habits that I refer to as my anchors. When I don’t follow them, I feel off or when I feel off, I go back to them. My mornings are sacred — I wake up early to make a cup of coffee. I then read, journal, meditate and pray. I then skim the news and work out. When I don’t do this, I know it. So I encourage my daughter as well as people around me to find their anchor habits — and guard them fiercely.

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?

This one is heavy and one I debate with many practitioners about. One thing I feel strongly about is how we try to solve issues without going back and fully understanding the history behind it. When you think of the recent political climate we’ve experienced and watch the PBS special ‘America: Reconstruction after the Civil War’ (as an example), you understand what’s showing up today, the playbook if you will. I believe we need to do that to fully heal and move forward.

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?

Without dating myself, I’ve held several roles in major global organizations and I’ve often said DE&I is the thing I can’t not do — I understand how important and impactful it is. And when done right the benefits go well beyond the workplace. Corporations have more influence than ever before and can lead in this space.

I’ve been involved in grassroots efforts, been the global co-chair for a Black Employee Network and spearheaded several initiatives to promote this work and worked with global organizations on their shaping and implementing their diversity and inclusion strategy.

While I’ve only been at Bitly for a short time, I’m extremely proud of some of our initiatives that are underway that look at DE&I holistically. Not only are we focused on doing the work internally, we are leaning into how we can use our products in ways that align with our strategy. An example of this is our Spotlight Program that provides Bitly’s platform free of charge to non-profit organizations who are working towards equity and inclusion initiatives.

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?

You don’t have to look far to find research, reports, or blogs on why it’s important to the bottom line. I’ll underscore what I also know has been said quite a bit — that representation is important, not only for those coming up to see people who look like them in senior positions but to also ensure you are not missing important voices at the table. It’s not just a seat at the table but a voice when seated at the table. The world is also more connected now and businesses can’t expect to remain sustainable and innovative if they don’t reflect their customer base. We have to be intentional about it, use data to tell the full story, revisit pipeline sourcing, and ensure the environment is one that makes sure we all thrive despite our differences. To that end, we at Bitly, are making sure that we are thoughtful on this when making key decisions with the aim of ensuring that DE&I is a key cornerstone of what we do.

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.

My good friend Dr. Robert Livingston details the PRESS model in his book ‘The Conversation’ and I love it because it speaks to the core of this question. PRESS stands for Problem Awareness, Root cause analysis, Empathy, Strategy and Sacrifice. A lot of DE&I efforts are surface level — which is why in 2020, organizations with the added scrutiny looked up and realized how ineffective their efforts have been. There is a tendency to rush through so we can put something up on marketing materials, or win awards. This surface, performative or knee jerk reaction is part of the problem. The PRESS model guides you through 3 key phases: fully understand the condition, have concern and then take corrective and decisive action. As I continue to build off the existing work and stand up DE&I at Bitly, this is our intention, to fully understand where we are and why we are here and then taking the steps and doing the work to build out a culture that truly ensures Bitly is an amazing place to work for everyone.

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

While it’s not always easy doing so, I remain optimistic. There is increased focus on the work that needs to be done and an increased level of accountability that individuals and organizations are being held to. We need to keep at it and not let up. And we need to create a space for learning. Instead of calling-out, let’s choose to call-in. Many want to learn but are afraid to do so. Let’s have respectful but deep conversations around this as I don’t believe in sugar-coating the issues but I do believe we need everyone (or almost everyone) at the table to be successful. This is part of our strategy at Bitly, as we set up the infrastructure, we want to intentionally foster an environment where all regardless of the level they are on their DEI journey, feels invited, can lean in and learn.

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. :-)

Too many to list. There two if I may, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an unapologetic feminist, not to mention her brilliant work. Ava Duverney, I think she’s thoughtful, deliberate and uses her platform well.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jcureton

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

Thank you!

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