MES 2020: Championing a culture of inclusion takes time

During a virtual session at strategy's summit, leaders at Aldo and Shopify explained why it's better to look within than to other brands for guidance on D&I.

MES panel

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Strategy’s Justin Dallaire spoke to Alyssa Whited, global marketing director at Aldo Group’s Call It Spring (top right), and Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, diversity and belonging lead at Shopify, during a virtual session of the Marketing Evolution: C-Suite Summit on Nov. 17. 

The diversity and belonging lead at Shopify, Shavonne Hasfal-McIntosh, is often asked, ‘What companies are doing D&I well? Which are doing it best?’

It’s a question that came up again last week during strategy’s virtual Marketing Evolution: C-Suite Summit (MES), in which Hasfal-McIntosh and co-panelist Alyssa Whited, global marketing director at Aldo Group’s Call It Spring – themselves leaders at companies that are considered more advanced on D&I – discussed championing a culture of inclusion in business.

While many brand leaders want to know what others are doing well, the panelists refrained from holding any one company up as the example to follow.

There are many reasons for this. For one, Hasfal-McIntosh and Whited suggested it’s too early to be applauding specific brand efforts when so much of the work is only now starting – not that this is a bad thing.

“A lot of companies and organizations are at the beginning or at that reflection and internal audit phase,” said Hasfal-McIntosh. “That is a great place to start.”

Whited echoed the sentiment, adding that it’s important for companies to be in it for the long haul. The objective should be doing things well – not fast – and addressing foundational issues and charting a path forward takes time.

So, for Whited, stand-out organizations are those for whom the D&I conversation remains pressing and relevant months after calls for inclusion and racial justice first became impossible to ignore.

“It’s one thing to talk about it when everyone’s talking about it… you’ll also probably get called out if you don’t,” Whited said. “But if you’re continuing that conversation meaningfully now, that’s the stand-out, because that’s the change that’s more inside-out. Those are the companies or the brands that you can tell these conversations are happening behind the scenes.”

Starting from a place of learning 

There may be no short-cuts or templates to follow when it comes to building an inclusive organization, but the panelists shared what their experiences have been like at companies that have been focused on the issue for several years. Both said the tone of the conversation changed in the wake of COVID-19 and the return of the Black Lives Matter movement that have renewed the fight against anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and anti-People of Colour racism.

At Shopify, Hasfal-McIntosh said her team would typically be called to support specific individuals or teams within the organization. But in recent months, she said that work has shifted toward a “collective desire to learn, unlearn and relearn” and to “build that empathetic muscle” across every aspect of the business.

Similarly, at the Aldo Group (where Whited is co-chair of its Diversity and Inclusion Branch), the marketer said leaders came to “collectively realize that we do not have all of the answers.”

“That’s an important takeaway for me as an individual, a Black woman – being Black doesn’t make me an expert,” she said. “And for us as a company, being rooted in diversity and togetherness and collectiveness also doesn’t make us an expert.”

It’s the reason Aldo has since taken a step back, after several years of D&I work, to further educate itself and reflect on how events from recent months have changed what it means to be an inclusive organization. “When we do get to that point of wanting to communicate how we’re going to affect change, it’s coming from a place that is sincerely informed from the inside-out.”

Building on that learning

Once steps have been taken to cultivate inclusivity on the inside (be it through bias training or new hiring policies, for example), organizations are then able to communicate in a way that feels authentic to the brand and all its employees, Whited said.

It comes back to wanting to “build with, not for” specific communities, explained Hasfal-McIntosh.

“Understand who you’re building for, have those conversations, have that dialogue, don’t be scared to reach out outside of your company or organization,” she said. “Because the risk of building for and not with is that what you put out there isn’t going to land and it’s not going to hit with the communities you’re trying to resonate with.”

While a lot of D&I initiatives had become “performative” and par for the course in recent years, Whited said she believes the last several months have led many companies to push beyond that and realize real change will require commitments in the form of committees, training and education.

And she’s optimistic that this evolution will be “permanent, more foundational.”

“I think the challenge right now is just not knowing what direction to go in,” she said. “That’s okay. We aren’t supposed to have all of the answers. And I don’t think that the expectation is to have all of the answers. But the expectation is to continue on this journey and try to create meaningful, foundational change so that we don’t revert back.”