Beyond inclusion: How leaders can become Diversity Champions
Jopwell CEO and co-founder Porter Braswell shares insights for realizing value from building workforces that reflect the world around us.
The first wave of disclosures about the lack of diversity in Big Tech, in 2014, came at an opportune time for Porter Braswell and Ryan Williams. Both African-Americans, they worked together on the trading floor of Goldman Sachs and, by virtue of their “otherness” within that context, had been called upon to help with the firm’s diversity recruitment efforts.
Braswell and Williams kept hearing about the lack of a “pipeline” supposedly accounting for the lack of diversity in the workplace, as if the failure was because the sought-after talent was in short supply or might not even exist. Braswell and Williams knew better. The talent most certainly did exist, but there was a big gap in connecting qualified candidates with opportunities. That was the initial insight that gave birth to Jopwell.
The duo had stood in the shoes of the would-be recruits, having entered into financial services through diversity recruitment initiatives. And they recognized the need to help others from underrepresented backgrounds gain a foothold on the corporate ladder. The conversation around the lack of diversity in tech got them thinking about how it wasn’t just tech; financial services and plenty of other desirable career sectors were also behind the curve, scrambling to figure out how to adapt their recruiting to an increasingly multicultural world.
Giving people of color a voice in shaping the companies of the future
Since launching in 2014, Jopwell has evolved into a holistic diversity solution — creating digital tools and content, building community and assisting companies with the recruitment and retention of professionals and students of color (black, Latinx and Native American). It is both consultant and coach, helping companies build more diverse workforces while also providing the counseling and resources students and job candidates need to unlock opportunity.
The New York City-based enterprise, with a staff of around 60, has raised about $15 million in institutional funding and works with approximately 250 companies including major banks and tech companies along with small businesses just beginning their diversity journeys. Injecting diversity into growing startups so that people of color have a voice in shaping the companies of the future has become a key pillar of the Jopwell story.
Get the jump on diversity early
“Diversity doesn’t just happen,” Braswell emphasizes in his presentation at the 2019 Spero Ventures Founder Summit. His advice: Take action before the headcount exceeds 10. “You have to be incredibly intentional at that stage,” he said. “The reality is that you have to do things differently — literally, physically put yourself in different communities and settings to find people from different backgrounds.” Indeed, leaders need to become more creative and innovative in how they reach out to and establish relationships with organizations that attract diverse constituencies.
While D&I generates a lot of “feel-good” lip service these days, Braswell told his Spero Ventures audience, it’s superfluous unless it rises to board-level conversations with C-suite buy-in. “Teams focused on diversity when a company is scaling need to report to the CEO,” he advised, and the commitment to instilling diversity as a core value needs to start at the top.
It’s not somebody else’s job to talk about the importance of diversity; it’s your job as the founder.
Just as it is incumbent on the VC community to ensure that portfolio companies recruit and nurture a diverse set of leaders, it’s up to those leaders to understand and articulate throughout their organizations why diversity matters and what it means at a more granular company level. “If you’re willing to get very specific about your actual pain points,” Braswell observed, “then you can start to apply actual solutions.”
Among the high-level truths that Braswell cited:
- People of color will comprise a majority of the U.S. population by 2040. In order to stay relevant and respond to changing consumer dynamics, businesses need workforces that reflect this demographic shift.
- Diversity is a recipe for business success. McKinsey, Bain and Boston Consulting Group have all contributed to a growing body of research showing clear quantitative correlations between workplace diversity and bottom-line performance.
- Diverse talents, ideas and perspectives are an enormous value add, fueling innovation and entrepreneurial passion for discovering what’s new and what’s next. Corporate cultures that reflect diversity are more adaptive to change and come up with better solutions to business problems.
There’s also the fact that companies with diverse and inclusive cultures are more attractive to young talent. Not only do Millennials and members of Gen-Z tend to value knowing and learning from others who are different, they prize workplaces that they can feel proud to be a part of; where diverse perspectives and experiences are readily solicited and shared.
To realize the value of diversity, it’s not enough to simply boost the representation of women and minorities. Braswell said there must also be a conscious effort to “go beyond inclusion” and nurture a sense of belonging.
Whereas inclusion is being invited to go to a dance, belonging is actually being asked to dance.
In the workplace, the true benefit of diversity comes to the fore when people can be themselves and feel comfortable speaking up, sharing personal experiences and contributing ideas openly and directly. “If people from different backgrounds can bring their authentic selves to work,” Braswell said, “you start to look at challenges differently.”
Leaders who “get” diversity know, intuitively, that it all comes down to how you treat people, as Braswell made clear in sharing takeaways for anyone aspiring to be a “Diversity Champion.”
- Treat others how you’d like to be treated and avoid calling people out for their “otherness.” In Braswell’s experience, this can happen in spite of the best of intentions to bring someone into conversations. He related being asked questions along the lines of, “Porter, what do you think the black community will think about this?” My response has been, “I can’t represent the entire black community, instead, I can talk to my own experiences and how I perceive it.’
- Be aware of things happening in the world that have a disproportionate impact on certain communities. If someone within an organization is potentially affected, said Braswell, “you should probably bring that person aside to let them know, in the appropriate setting, that you are aware of what’s going on and you’re there to be a sounding board if they ever need somebody to talk to.”
- Set guidelines and expectations around the way meetings are run and when it’s appropriate to address certain issues, such as compensation. Create a culture where, regardless of background or where people have worked in the past, there’s transparency and the same “rules of the road” apply to everyone.
- Become a more active listener, especially when mentoring those from underrepresented communities within your company. Generalized mentorship bromides often don’t resonate with people from marginalized groups whose experiences aren’t consistent with the norm. “My best mentors are those that recognize going out and raising capital and leading a company as a man of color is just very different than if I wasn’t,” Braswell noted. “That’s where I feel the most comfortable to bring out my experiences and ultimately drive change.”
- Lead with empathy. People of color and of different ethnic and gender identities experience the workplace and the world differently than you may experience it. Take into account their unique experiences and show curiosity and a willingness to learn from them. This will create trust and attract people whose talent shines brightest when they can be themselves and let their guard down.
When Braswell and Williams started Jopwell, they lacked direct access to investors and mentors of color who could show them the ropes. Overcoming this barrier shaped their mission around unlocking opportunity for those seeking to enter professional settings where not many people look like them.
There’s a saying about overcoming lack of diversity in the workplace: You can’t be what you can’t see. For Native Americans, people of color and members of the Latinx community, thanks to Jopwell’s trailblazing, seeing makes it possible to believe in a more diverse and inclusive future.
Porter Braswell’s talk was given at Spero Ventures Founder Summit on October 24, 2019. Watch the full talk below.