Creating a culture of diversity and inclusion

It’s been quite a while since I posted on this blog, but I hope my excuses are legitimate. Last March after returning from ten months of traveling around the world, I joined digital agency Ueno as a Senior Marketing Strategist. Fast forward one year later, and I just became a mom to my first child! So, things have been busy but wonderful. And I’m here to tell you a bit more about the wonderful lesson Ueno has taught me about creating a culture of diversity and inclusion.

Diversity and inclusion sounds like a cliche HR term we’ve heard all too often, without stopping to think about what it means or have meaningful conversations about how to achieve it. The truth is, I didn’t think much about it until I started working at the most culturally diverse company I’ve ever been a part of… and a light bulb went off.

We represent six nationalities in our office of only ten people. It’s amazing. At any moment I might hear four different languages being spoken, and we spend our team lunches talking about cultural differences, where and how people grew up, and learn all kinds of fascinating tidbits about each other’s home countries. (One of our favorite topics is food because there’s no better source of culture, and we’re all foodies!) Our differences actually unify the team by giving us the shared identity of being international. When we have clients or friends visit our office, I proudly tell them that I am one of only two born-and-raised Americans in the office, naming all of the different countries where my colleagues are from. Impressive, right!?

Our wealth of cultural backgrounds impacts our work more than you might think. We’re all influenced by the things we grew up around, and learning about these different experiences sparks curiosity in one another. It leads us to ask more questions. In one example, I never realized how weird and stupid the American tradition of Groundhog’s Day is until a French colleague asked, perplexed, “So Americans think a little animal can predict the end of winter… for real?” Ummm, yeah, it’s super weird. And I’d never questioned it before.

So, while Trump isn’t making it easy, I would encourage any company to hire international employees. It really does impact the overall flavor of a company and naturally fosters creativity.

In addition to our international employees, Ueno has a culture of sharing ideas. The thought that great ideas can come from anywhere is ingrained in us. A designer can have a great marketing idea. A marketer can offer valuable design input. And, importantly, an employee with two years of experience can have an equally valid idea as the employee with ten years. Some might describe this as a flat culture, but to me it’s common sense. How can people grow professionally if they aren’t encouraged to share and test ideas?

The tricky part is soliciting ideas from people who might otherwise keep their mouths shut for a myriad of reasons… “That’s not my job” or “I’m thinking too differently from everyone else” or “This will probably sound stupid.” One thing I’ve learned from my boss is that you can proactively include people by asking them, specifically by name, what they think during meetings. Rather than inviting general feedback, calling on someone specifically for their ideas–even if it may seem like putting someone on the spot–is much more effective. Over time, people get used to it and can start to feel more comfortable sharing what’s on their mind. It’s not easy to open up to people and put yourself out there, and I personally still need to work on it. But if I’m asked my opinion, I’ll definitely take the opportunity.

It helps to have a socially-conscious and inclusive leadership team. I want to share something one of our company leaders recently shared on Slack:

 

Ok, so I’ve observed that some of our younger and non-english native people sometimes don’t fully understand what people are talking about, and feel too embarrassed and vulnerable about it to call it out.

Communication is the foundation for understanding and our ability to function but more importantly our ability to connect as people.

Two things to keep in mind:

1) If english is not your first language, you shouldn’t be afraid to be vulnerable about your language. You are learning and learning is hard. You should not get blamed for not speaking perfect English, or for not understanding the native english speakers (or anyone really). You are here because we want you here, we love that you have a different background and you add value in so many different types of ways.

2) To native speakers: english is the company language, but Ueno is an international company: you need to be aware that not everybody shares your cultural and language context. You are responsible for making yourself understood, not the other way around.

If you don’t understand something, just ask. And if you still don’t understand that’s ok, just ask again. And keep asking until you understand.


A simple observation with encouragement like this could make all the difference. Even if it seems like it should go without saying, it needs to be said.

Our diversity track record isn’t perfect. We’re mostly white, and our tech/development team is overwhelmingly male. But diversity is a common theme and one of our core values. It’s a crucial area of focus for our leadership team as we grow.

This may not be a marketing-specific topic, but I hope it sparks some thinking about diversity and inclusion, and why it’s so important to any business. Thinking and talking about it is a great first step to creating a stronger, more inclusive culture.

 

-Posted by Elizabeth Donovan-

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