In a recent article in the New York Times titled, “How and Why You Diversify Colleges,” author Frank Bruni examines the argument to date for doing so and immediately upends it. He eloquently points out that including more low-income students at elite colleges “is too often framed as some do-gooder favor to those kids.” Similar to positioning diversity as the “right thing to do” instead of the “necessary thing to do” for business, the need to diversify America’s elite colleges should by no means be positioned or seen as this sort of “pity party” for poor students. This approach will never, ever work, as it does not bring everyone along on the journey. Instead, it needs to be positioned as an all around win for everyone, especially for the wealthy students. In Bruni’s words,
“It’s a favor to us all. It’s a plus for richer students, who are then exposed to a breadth of perspectives that lies at the heart of the truest, best education. With the right coaxing and mixing on campus, they become more fluent in diversity, which has professional benefits as well as the obvious civic and moral ones…It’s a win for America and its imperiled promise of social mobility.”
Now that’s an argument that speaks to me. It encompasses everything from social mobility to awareness to the lasting and all reaching impact of being surrounded by people from diverse backgrounds.
This article struck a particular part of me, for now is the first time in weeks that I have had to sit down and reflect after a whirlwind of diversity events. From PUSHTech2020 in San Francisco to a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) Forum hosted by the Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) in Dallas, there is one question that continues to echo in the background of all of these types of events: How do diversity advocates build the best business case so as to make this work a necessity, which will then bring everyone along on the journey? In a former post, I provide solutions on how to build a solid business case to do so. However, advice on this topic is so much easier stated than implemented, and I wholeheartedly recognize and acknowledge this fact. The question and challenge still remains, however, as how best to do this work, as time is quickly moving forward, and leaving diversity efforts behind.
Bruni’s point as to diversity being “a win for America and its imperiled promise of social mobility” is real. It gets to both the heart and the financial impact of the matter. While the argument for organizations and corporations needs to be framed differently, Bruni’s point should not be ignored, as diversity truly is a win for America and America’s businesses. As I have stated many times, in order to compete in an ever-increasingly global and diverse market, companies themselves need to reflect the diversity of our communities. Without this mirroring, companies will fail to relate to, address and thus capture the full buying power of the diverse markets available to them. According to a Nielsen report, this buying power is growing at an alarming rate and has grown from $661 billion in 1990 to $3.4 trillion in 2014. At a rate that is more than double the growth of total U.S. buying power, companies can no longer sit back and ignore the impending demographic and buying power shift.
While internal data and external research such as the above greatly help to build the business case for diversity in a way that ties to the bottom line, I cannot help but question the very reason as to why, in this day and age, we are still building the business case for something that I deem to be as crucial as oxygen is for life. Without diversity, we have no innovation. Without innovation, we have no new ideas. Without new ideas, we become stagnant, surrounded by sameness. It is like unnecessarily living in a world of greyness. While all of these words may sound like poetic musings, they are also at the heart of why this work is so important. It is real. It is raw. And, it brings life, creativity and uniqueness to a world that would otherwise remain homogenous. This is oftentimes why I become momentarily frustrated with having to still build this case in 2016. But I continue to do so as it is imperative that everyone, from executives to individual contributors, is fully along on this journey before initiatives are implemented.
The above statements by no mean negates the need for data-driven research, such as that related to an increase in financial returns for companies in the top quartile for gender, racial and ethnic diversity. It also does not refute the need to support this work with internal people data, which will drive a targeted strategy. However, it certainly does speak to why diversity matters at a macro level. Just as Bruni points out, this work, and doing it well, is a “win for America and its imperiled promise of social mobility.” While elite colleges can support this work by providing more entry-points to embrace both socioeconomic and ethnic diversity, companies can support this work by providing jobs. What better promise for upward social mobility than that of a decent income, accompanied by career opportunities? I cannot think of a better one myself and I, for one, want to make this ideal a reality.
All in all, the argument as to why diversity matters is multi-layered, multi-faceted and multi-pronged. Like a lawyer building a case before a judge, doing this work well requires knowing one’s audience well, presenting the argument that will resonate best and driving the point home that diversity is not an option. In fact, it is as key to the business as sales, marketing and every other traditional corporate function. Too often diversity and inclusion have been seen more as a resource drain than a potential asset. It is time to change this perspective. It is time to make this story real. And, it is time, once and for all, to eliminate the case for diversity as solely a philanthropic effort. This argument has not and will not advance and engage everyone in this work into and beyond the 21st Century.
As Shylock asked in Shakepeare’s infamous The Merchant of Venice, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?” In the end, we are all humans. We simply live in this world in different colors, sizes and shapes. What a beautiful way to be: different, yet similar. This is just one of the many reasons why this work matters to me. So, let’s reinvent, reimagine and reengineer the case for why diversity matters. I know why it matters to me. It is now your turn to determine why it matters to you and to make it come alive in your work places and communities every day.