I am a Black man leading a $60 million digital services company. I am proud of the diversity of my team of close to 200– 49 percent are women and 38 percent are Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)– and the work we do through our incubator to help other minority and female entrepreneurs grow and scale their businesses.
My company is rapidly growing and I am becoming a more recognized leader, particularly in our hometown of Baltimore, yet I still find myself wondering at times if I belong. Do I look the part? Sound the part? Am I perceived by new connections as a successful entrepreneur?
I recently attended the Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum in Palm Springs and I was an Entrepreneur of the Year finalist in the Mid-Atlantic region. It was an incredible four days for my COO and I. Ernst & Young did a great job of fostering strategic introductions and celebrating the country’s finalists.
However, as I walked around each day, I noticed there weren’t many people who looked like me. This is not unusual. At most events, I tend to be one of the few people of color in the room– and it’s frustrating. I have been fortunate over the years to have had mentors and sponsors who have lifted me up and created space for me, but I often wonder about the impact the lack of diversity has on other entrepreneurs and leaders of color.
To be clear, more and more companies are committing to DEI efforts. According to McKinsey, companies committed $66 billion in 2020 to advance racial equity. Yes, we are making advancements in the hiring and advancement of women and people of color. Yes, there are more opportunities for funding, and programs that highlight the successes and contributions of people of color. But it’s simply not enough.
Creating diverse, equitable and inclusive environments means more than hiring or advancing diverse talent. It means more than increasing investment in black-owned companies and products.
As entrepreneurs, we have to create spaces to ensure authentic inclusiveness. People should feel comfortable in their own skin, bringing their full selves to the table. But in order to create inclusive spaces, the creators of said space must be representative of the groups they are seeking to include. For example, when planning an event or awards program, the committees planning or judging the event should be diverse. This helps to both identify gaps in representation and to ensure the environment makes everyone feel comfortable. Creating a sense of inclusion helps people feel valued and gives them a sense of belonging, rather than just checking the box.
In Deloitte’s 2021 DEI Transparency Report, they defined inclusion, one of their core values, as “Strengthening our inclusive culture to empower people to be their authentic selves, feel like they belong, have courageous conversations respectfully, and develop genuine relationships.”
Additionally, we have to become more aware of our biases, and not make assumptions about the people we meet. When introduced to someone at a meeting or event, don’t assume they are coming to you for help. That Black entrepreneur you meet at an event may not be a novice entrepreneur seeking advice from you– he could be the leader of a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
Arlan Hamilton, the founder of Backstage Capital, said, “I do think that treating everyone equally no matter where they come from, no matter who they are and what role they have, is a big key because you never know who you’re talking to, really. You never know where they’ve been. You never know where they’re going. So, it just makes a lot of good sense to treat everyone the same and treat them well.”
Finally, those of us who succeed have to intentionally lift others up, inviting them into spaces they may not have access to and giving them a seat at the table. We have to help position those often overlooked into a place of influence and provide them a platform for their voice to be heard.
If companies want to attract more diverse talent, and organizations want to recognize a more diverse slate of award candidates, there needs to be cultures and environments that will attract, and a plan for engaging with a diverse audience. If you don’t know any people of color, or people of color aren’t aware of your organization, there is no realistic way to expect change. And, certainly, there will be no momentum gained if people leave feeling misplaced.
While we are making strides in creating more diverse workplaces and communities, we still are not moving the needle around inclusion. In order for people to feel comfortable and confident to grow, scale and succeed in environments they were previously not part of, we need to be more intentional about inclusion practices.