Jennifer Risi of The Sway Effect: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society

An Interview With Savio P. Clemente

Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

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It’s important that everybody has a voice. It’s important that we try to create an equal playing field because we’re all going to be better if we actually recognize our differences. The work is better, companies are more profitable. People are more successful. I think that if you just want to look at yourself and the people, you know, that little circumference of the world you live in, you’re missing out on learning so many things from other people.

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 Jennifer Risi at the 2022 South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

Jennifer is the Founder and President of The Sway Effect, one of the fastest-growing marketing and communications agencies today.

The Sway Effect is a global network of independent agencies focused on driving brand reputation and integrating diversity, equity and inclusion into all aspects of business today. Our network includes experts in PR and influence, brand strategy, creative, social impact, data and analytics, research and measurement, and diversity, equity and inclusion programming.

Risi is a champion for diversity — often writing and speaking on key issues as well as mentoring and sponsoring next-generation talent. She is also a member of the 4A’s Foundation Board and forged Ogilvy’s membership with the Unstereotype Alliance. She serves as an ongoing advisor to UN Women and UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Notably, during her career, Risi launched UN Women’s HeForShe campaign, managed Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Climate Summit for Local Leaders at COP21, and handled the Citizens Financial Group IPO.

Risi lives in New York City and is an alumna of Barnard College, Columbia University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have worked at big agencies for a long time. In one of my last roles, I had a very visible job and I wanted to use my role for good. I wanted to use my role to drive change and I saw a lot of things that I thought we could do better. Our teams were not inclusive of the populations we serve. So I was in a room where we had 10 white guys coming up with an idea for a brand that was not going after white people. I saw just how the company was being created and I was like, I really think we can do better and so I really wanted to create a company that I thought was really good at driving brand reputation, and put diversity equity inclusion at the center of everything that we do.

And that’s not a buzzword, right? It’s really intentional what I said before, even on stage it’s how do we help the brands that we’re working with? Some of the biggest brands in the world actually realize that this has to be central to what they’re doing and it’s good for business, but it’s also the right thing to do and you need to create a culture that actually reflects the people that you’re serving. But what I saw was so many people were not even aware how important these issues were. So I felt that I wanted to create a company that was going to do great brand work, but also do it in a way that put these important issues at the center, because too many brands that I was working with didn’t think it applied to them.

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you began your career?

I believe everything happens for a reason. When I started Sway, I thought it was going to just be me consulting. I had been in the industry for 20 years and a lot of people I knew reached out to me and were like, I have an independent agency too. Why don’t we get together and figure out how we can work together more? And so I came up with the idea of creating this network of agencies. So we have like 50 network partners all over the world, whether it is advertising, brand strategy, social impact work, communications, data analytics and we put this team together so that we just go out and do badass work. So a brief comes in…who do I know that’s awesome at data analytics or creative that we can go out and put the right team together. So that’s been the most exciting thing to me is that I thought I was going to just consult.

The coolest part is when I launched Sway in July in 2019. I had all these people around me that were working together with me, and this thing just happened and so that’s been the most rewarding thing that I’ve seen. I worked for all these other companies for so long and now I’m creating this company that I think that is doing some of the best work I’ve ever done, and I’m able to do it because I’m working with people I like, people who are my friends who are experts in what they do and we’ve just created a forum where we actually can all succeed together. There’s no competition. It’s just collaboration.

Tell us about the funniest mistake you have made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?

I traveled around the world for a lot of my clients for a long time. The funniest stuff was just missing flights. Not being in the right time zone, wearing the wrong thing, going to the Middle East wearing the completely wrong things you’re supposed to wear. Going to Mexico and meeting with the president at the time and I was asked, why don’t you have stockings on? Things you probably shouldn’t say in 2022, but you said back in 2000.

But I would say the funniest thing that happened recently was the fact that I paid for 18 months of an office space that I never sat in because of the pandemic. We got our office in March 2020. I don’t know if that’s funny, but it’s ironic.

Thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make the culture of diversity move inclusive in the U.S.?

We’re working with leaders who actually have the power to make the change happen. Diversity is almost easy. Inclusion is hard. Equity is the hardest and we really try to make clients realize that they have to make it a central part of what they do. It’s not an afterthought. The head of diversity and inclusion needs to report to the CEO. They need to set metrics. They need to have a speak up culture. They need to put the right programs in place for anyone to actually be able to talk about, to call out anything. It could be from the littlest thing in a room to how you might be treated in a meeting. Someone should talk about that. Let alone the fact of setting big, lofty goals as a company. So I would say the way that we’re doing it is we’re making it central to a brand’s business strategy. It’s not an afterthought. It has to be central to how you operate in order to actually see a difference.

Can you tell a story about a particular individual who impacted your career?

One of the stories that I love to talk about is the former head of UN Women. We worked on a program called HeForShe. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, many years ago. We were in a car driving upstate to some event and she had asked me to help her come up with this effort. HeForShe, which became this iconic campaign for the UN, and it was about women empowerment and diversity long before it was en vogue to talk about DEI, right? And she asked me to help her put this program together. We had a $5,000 budget and she said we have a platform. It was one of the most empowering situations I ever was in and she taught me so many things about the issues she came from. She was a freedom fighter working for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and it opened my eyes to work that I wanted to do. She honestly changed a lot of the perspectives that I have and helped me become the leader I am today.

Can you share reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented and its potential effects on our culture?

It’s important that everybody has a voice. It’s important that we try to create an equal playing field because we’re all going to be better if we actually recognize our differences. The work is better, companies are more profitable. People are more successful. I think that if you just want to look at yourself and the people, you know, that little circumference of the world you live in, you’re missing out on learning so many things from other people. I grew up in Queens, New York. I grew up in an Italian, Irish, white neighborhood, and I had a very specific environment I grew up in and then I went to Columbia. I went to school in the city and I met all these amazing people from all parts of the world that opened my eyes to things that I just didn’t know and it gave me perspective that I never would’ve had. These are some of the closest friends I have to this day and to me that type of being open and aware just enables you to be a better person.

Can you recommend three things that are causing individuals not to be as open minded in business as they should?

Personal bias. I mean, you have people today saying that doesn’t apply to me. Everything applies to everybody. Everyone in the business world should be impacted by what’s going on in the world. Where you don’t see things happening the way they should is when people are just so insular and so into who they think they are, who they are, and who they surround themselves with. It gives them a very specific perspective that is limiting. So self-awareness, being open, being a good listener, having empathy, knowing that you don’t know everything, which most people think they know more than they do, inhibits people from being as successful and being good leaders.

Always try. Never take no for an answer. Surround yourself with people that are going to help you be better.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Self-Awareness because most people do not have self-awareness. I feel like we’re playing like the Vogue 73 question.

Can you share with our readers how you have used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m very focused on giving people opportunity, inclusion, trying to empower people, speaking up for them. I think that I try to do for others what maybe what wasn’t always done for me. I’ve had great sponsors and mentors in my career. I always say I wouldn’t have been the best account supervisor at Ogilvy if I didn’t have good sponsors helping me get that next job. I try to advocate and help set people up for success and give them opportunities that maybe they wouldn’t have had as well. Giving them hopefully the confidence that they can do things and try things differently.

What is your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?”

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Lastly, if you could have a private breakfast with anyone in the world, who would that be and why?

Whitney Houston because I want to know what happened. I love Whitney Houston. She’s my favorite singer. We have a beach house where we will blast Whitney Houston every weekend and the fact that she’s dead, I cannot believe it.

This was very meaningful Jennifer, thank you so much!

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Savio P. Clemente
Authority Magazine

TEDx Speaker, Media Journalist, Board Certified Wellness Coach, Best-Selling Author & Cancer Survivor