Robinhood’s Cynthia Owyoung: 5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society
…Be accountable — For change to happen, someone needs to own it. We have to set an intentional goal and then measure our progress against it. If we don’t demand action against injustice and hold leaders accountable to taking action, then we won’t see any change. All we’ll get are “thoughts and prayers”, which are nice but don’t actually change anything We also need to hold ourselves accountable to the first four steps and make sure we are doing our individual parts to drive a more inclusive, representative and equitable society.
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 Cynthia Owyoung.
Cynthia Owyoung is the author of All Are Welcome: How to Build a Real Workplace Culture of Inclusion that Delivers Results (https://www.cynthiaowyoung.com). Owyoung is Robinhood’s Vice President of Inclusion, Equity and Belonging, partnering with business leaders, employee resource groups and the people experience team to support Robinhood’s mission to democratize finance for all. She’s also the founder of Breaking Glass Forums, where she develops strategies to accelerate more diverse leaders and inclusive organizations. A recognized diversity leader, Owyoung was named to Entrepreneur Magazine’s 100 Women of Impact in 2021. Owyoung serves on the Board of Directors for AbilityPath, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering people with special needs to achieve their full potential.
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?
My parents were immigrants from China who came here with no money, looking for a better life. I am first generation born in the US, and the youngest of three children. My oldest brother is developmentally challenged and my other brother is gay. We grew up in a primarily African-American neighborhood in San Francisco, raised with traditional Chinese values in a majority white American culture, so I always felt out of place. All of these factors really influenced why I decided to go into the field of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB).
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?
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. It was the first book I read that really reflected my own Chinese-American experience. The family dynamics, challenges navigating different cultural expectations and search for identity depicted in the novel hit very close to home for me. I felt seen in a way that I hadn’t been in any other novel I’d read to that point. It also helped me understand my own family better and appreciate them more.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
“Just Do It.” So this goes back to my first career in advertising where I helped develop taglines and campaigns like this and I know how hard it is to create something that becomes part of the cultural zeitgeist. Even though this started as an advertising slogan that was meant to sell shoes, it’s grown to be so much more than that, for athletes and non-athletes alike. These are the words I say to myself whenever I am confronting a fear or procrastinating starting something challenging or preparing for that big speaking presentation. It’s motivational on a visceral level for me and how I get myself pumped up to tackle anything.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership is inspiring others to follow you. It’s not about telling people what to do or being at the top of the hierarchy. It’s about taking the initiative to do something and enrolling others to support you along the way. I believe that anyone can be a leader. Earlier in my career, I was told by a manager that I wasn’t inspiring enough as a leader, which catalyzed me to figure out how to prove that manager wrong. Through a lot of experimentation and experience, I’ve learned that being a leader isn’t about using inspiring quotes, but rather about being authentic and vulnerable in my storytelling. It wasn’t until I started talking about why I care about DEIB and do the work that I realized others saw me as a leader in this space that they wanted to emulate and follow.
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 find that preparation is the best way for me to deal with stressful work situations. So whenever I have a big presentation scheduled, I make sure to block off time to write out my talking points and practice what I’m going to say. And then right before my talk, if I feel that knot of anxiety building in my stomach, I will close my eyes and take some deep breaths to ground myself and release the anxiety. Similarly for high stakes decisions, I find I have to talk it through with other people whose opinions I respect to be able to gain the perspective I need to feel confident in whatever decision I make. And then to not delay making the decision because once I make it, the stress goes away. I’ve learned not to agonize over a decision afterwards. If I’m able to move quickly into execution mode, I can feel a sense of accomplishment over quick wins and that’s a great de-stressor.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing 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 how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
There are so many contributing factors to why we’ve finally reached this boiling point on race, equality and inclusion. Not only is there our long history in the US of racial inequality and the civil rights movement, but you add to that the technology that in more recent years has allowed us to share our stories much more immediately and broadly than ever before. So now, each story of racial injustice gets amplified and spread so quickly that it’s really difficult to live in our own little bubbles anymore ignoring them. Layer the pandemic on top of that, with people losing their livelihoods due to the global shutdown and feeling more isolated and fearful than ever before, and you’ve got the fuel for social unrest that’s just waiting to be lit. And the video of George Floyd’s murder was the match. Our self-reckoning is the culmination of all the frustration that underrepresented groups have been feeling at being victimized for so long, whether it was stories of police brutality in the Black community, or Asians being blamed for COVID19 or working mothers who need to somehow work and provide childcare at the same time. Organizations simply cannot ignore the need for more diverse, inclusive and equitable outcomes any longer. People are tired of it and won’t allow it.
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?
I’ve been a diversity practitioner for 20 years now, working both inside companies as part of their human resources departments and outside companies as a consultant. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with companies as small as 10 people to as large as 100K+. I’ve been able to do this work across multiple industries, from technology and media to financial services. Wherever I’ve been internal, I’ve either launched or redesigned corporate DEIB strategies. And while I’ve primarily focused my work on how to diversify an organization’s talent at all levels of the company, some of my favorite DEIB initiatives have been the ones that have had a customer focus. For example, launching financial education seminars for women and the LGBTQ+ community, leveraging our internal employee communities to design and deliver them.
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?
Having a diverse executive team will help you develop more innovative ideas, make better business decisions and lead to better financial outcomes. There are dozens of research studies you can find out there that backs each of these up. More heterogenous teams are more creative and are more rigorous in considering different perspectives in decision making. McKinsey found that companies with more gender and racially diverse leadership teams are 15% and 35% more likely to have better financial returns respectively than their industry’s national median. Not only will companies be more successful with diverse executive teams than without, they are more likely to attract and keep top, diverse talent and are better positioned to serve a more diverse marketplace.
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.
- Get educated — First, everyone should take the opportunity to learn about the issues contributing to a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion in society. We should all be students of history and do our best to understand what is important to different communities and what systemic barriers may be holding them back from equitable experiences. The closer we can get to the issues and the people it affects, the more likely we are to be motivated to do something about it. For example, if you are able-bodied, you may not think twice about how to walk into a building, but if you broke your leg and experienced how inaccessible that building is to people in wheelchairs, you would likely be motivated to advocate for change.
- Act courageously — To drive real change, each of us must have the courage to step out of our comfort zones. We have to get comfortable doing things differently than we may have done them in the past, in how we hire people, who we vote for, and how we treat people who may be different from ourselves. We have to challenge our own assumptions and biases and learn new ways of doing things that may require more intention and effort but result in more equitable outcomes. And that can mean anything from getting into the habit of using “they” pronouns for non-binary gender identities to standing up for someone who is being blatantly discriminated against in public.
- Empower others — We are all connected to other people and that means we all have the opportunity to impact and empower how they view and act on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging. While it’s important to work on ourselves first, we have to also look at how we encourage and inspire others to support DEIB as well. Are we giving marginalized groups the power and authority to drive change in our organizations? Are we making space for uncomfortable conversations about race, gender, ability or any other dimension of diversity? Do we give voice to the voiceless? These are all ways to ensure others feel empowered to drive change.
- Do the work — It’s not enough to say you’re committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, you have to actually take action and do something to demonstrate that commitment. Otherwise it’s just window dressing. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, so many companies and individuals said they would address the systemic oppression of Black people. Yet, how many of us have actually followed through in a significant and meaningful way? We have to make our intentions real and put in the work to drive change, especially when it means those in power have to give some of that power up.
- Be accountable — For change to happen, someone needs to own it. We have to set an intentional goal and then measure our progress against it. If we don’t demand action against injustice and hold leaders accountable to taking action, then we won’t see any change. All we’ll get are “thoughts and prayers”, which are nice but don’t actually change anything We also need to hold ourselves accountable to the first four steps and make sure we are doing our individual parts to drive a more inclusive, representative and equitable society.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
While I think it is nearly impossible to eradicate discrimination in all its forms, I am very optimistic that we can get fairly close. I grew up watching Star Trek, which painted a world in which Earth’s people were united and all the “-isms” were eradicated. I remember being inspired by that, thinking that’s a reality we could reach, even if many of the stories told on Star Trek were actually allegories for racism, sexism and imperialism that are still very much a part of our society today. But since the social unrest following the murder of George Floyd and the wave of anti-Asian violence resulting from the pandemic, I believe we’ve crossed a tipping point on the issues of equity, inclusion and social justice that can’t be tipped back. I’ve seen people who never gave a thought to these issues before now engaging in ways I wouldn’t have foreseen. Like the usually indifferent colleague who asked what support I needed given the wave of anti-Asian violence happening. And the leader who openly talked about what he’s learned about the Black Lives Matter movement since George Floyd. These are signals that have given me hope we are in the midst of a real change that will help us continue down the path to a more inclusive and equitable future for our children.
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. :-)
I would love to meet with Michelle and Barack Obama. They lead with such grace and fortitude, despite all the intense criticism they’ve faced, and are inspiring role models for so many people across different backgrounds. I am in awe of the impact they’ve had on the world and just want the opportunity to learn what I can from them regarding how they managed through it all.
How can our readers follow you online?
My website: https://www.cynthiaowyoung.com/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!