I want you to imagine that you’ve been invited to a casual party at my house. Here’s who will be in the room:
- A guy near retirement who has cofounded some of the most disruptive entertainment companies of the 21st century.
- A young Black woman with a cache of stories about unusual and accomplished people who share a common secret.
- A woman entrepreneur with a Ph.D. who served tours of duty with the Navy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- A bright young Jewish woman who has unlocked the secrets of networking for her generation.
- A guy who ran a visible and successful early fan community and is now a go-to expert on online communities.
- A Swedish guy, the head trainer and productivity guru for one of the world’s premier consulting companies, who now coaches dozens of executives every week.
- A Black man who rose from the streets of Brooklyn to become one of the most influential executives in technology and culture.
- An academic who teaches an economically diverse set of business school students — and has detected historically universal patterns in how new ventures succeed.
- An Australian applying 2000-year-old philosophy principles to advertising.
- A woman who started and rapidly grew a successful market research company — and now has unprecedented insights into how American voters think.
- A Black entrepreneur whose fast-growing company is unleashing the secrets of innovation in the post-COVID era.
Imagine the conversations. The ideas that would flow!
This party is my daily work. These people are my clients. In the last year or so, I have attempted to say “yes” to projects that seemed interesting and people who seemed diverse, and this is the result. Frankly, helping a group this diverse to define and spread their ideas is about as stimulating as it gets.
What diversity means to me
At my previous jobs, with a few exceptions, the people I worked closely with were highly educated white men and, to a lesser extent, white women. They were the colleagues and the clients. Diversity, for the most part, meant that some were Jewish and some were Asian and some were gay. I could concentrate on their strategy and technology problems, because I didn’t need to concentrate on who they were.
The people I interact with now are not all the same.
Of course there is diversity of ideas — an entertainment entrepreneur is not going to think about things the same way as a business school professor — but that’s just the beginning.
What is far more visible to me is what happens when these people try to express those ideas.
If you are Black, your audience starts with assumptions about you. And you start with a life experience that’s most likely quite different from your white colleagues. I am learning to listen to these differences, and to help the people behind them to get their voice out into the world in a way that others can hear and understand. I am insecure about my ability to help them since I do not instinctively understand their perspective in the way that I do with people who share my background, but the struggle is worth it . . . if I can help them to make me understand, I can help them to make everybody understand.
If you are a woman, again, your audience will make assumptions about you. I have worked closely with intelligent and brilliant women my whole career, and have always thought that those relationships were built around ideas. But the women expressing those ideas needed to navigate a web of social assumptions — assumptions that I certainly have been unconsciously a part of — even as they try to get their ideas taken seriously.
Now, at age 62, I am learning to see a lot of what they’re going through. Yes, it is possible to come to this realization at this advanced age. Furthermore, my business now demands it. If I don’t get what they’re saying, I can’t help them, and I don’t deserve to get paid. Listening and attempting to gain a deeper understanding is essential to my work.
It’s not just a question of these folks’ ideas getting out into the world. It is that without their unique background and experiences, they could not have conceived those amazing ideas. Their diversity and their ideas are inextricably entangled. No one else could have had these ideas.
My immersion in this diversity has enriched my experience of the world in ways I cannot express. Everyone ought to have experiences like this at work and in life. If you don’t meet people like this, you are missing out.
I have no particular skill for expressing the value of diversity at work — there are others with far more experience than me in this space. I can only offer a personal perspective. And my perspective is: your life will be richer if you don’t exclusively hang out with people who are just like you.