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3 things we learned launching a DEI brand for the Aspen Institute.

By Lenora Rand, June 2024

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash


I still remember when my oldest daughter, Zoe, who was probably a freshman in college at the time, heard me complaining one day about how hard it was to explain the difference between “equality” and “equity.” 


“Mom,” she said, shaking her head." Haven’t you ever heard about the Equity Boxes?” and pulled this meme up from the internet:

This was the original version of this meme, but there have been many variations on it created over the last ten or so years. And many searing critiques of it as well. Including this one which says this image should depict three people all the same size and it’s the ground beneath them that’s different - making the point that it’s the foundation beneath them that affects their ability to see the baseball game. 


You can see many of these iterations in this fascinating article about the evolution of this meme, written by the original creator, Craig Froehle, here. I highly recommend it. 


One of the reasons I really liked this article was because I was impressed by Froehle’s openness to how others have taken his idea and used it to express their own understanding and experiences. He embraced collaboration, even unwittingly, and wasn’t holding onto some idea that his original meme was the best that could be done. He was open to new learning, open to other voices, and open to evolving in his own understanding of equity. 

I was thinking about the Equity Boxes analogy when Aspen Digital asked us to help launch a new DEI initiative they were incubating. 


Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have been around in corporate America since the 1960s and have become more prevalent over the past decade. After the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 and the increasingly urgent cries for equity in the U.S. and around the world, many companies stepped up their efforts even more.  


However, even though they were well-meaning, like the Equity Boxes meme and its variations, many of these DEI efforts through the years have had their flaws, their limitations.


Or, at least, weren't quite there yet.


Aspen Digital recognized that one of the reasons DEI efforts have a long way to go in so many companies is because there is no shared set of standards. So, they came to us to help them launch a new coalition they were incubating, created to help hold the tech industry accountable for real and measurable diversity, equity, and inclusion. 


Why the focus on the Tech industry? While DEI is important for all industries, it is particularly important for the technology sector, which provides oversight of our social media channels, search engines, AI applications, and how we consume news.



For example, our largest search engine, Google, supports 5.6 billion daily searches and 2 trillion searches annually. It determines which results we see first, among other things. And while this is helpful, it can also create a dangerous amount of bias. According to a recent study, eight in ten tech executives are white, while just 37% of tech companies have at least one woman on their board.


As we helped the Aspen Digital team develop their vision, mission, values, brand narrative, name (which became Tech Accountability Coalition), logo, and brand identity, we had several “Aha!” moments about what it takes to make diversity, equity, and inclusion a reality. Aha’s that are valid whether you’re a tech company, a nonprofit, a social enterprise, a retailer, or a small advertising consultancy like us, trying to “grow more good in the world." So, we thought we’d share.  


Here are our top three takeaways.



  1. Collaboration is key, But it's not easy.

 

The Aspen team was committed to collaboration. Everyone on the project joined every meeting that they could, and they were truly empowered to weigh in, offer ideas and critiques, and share their point of view. 


What did we learn by working with this deeply collaborative group? 


Genuinely inviting every voice to the table is an important start. We also have to stop placing someone (“the boss,” “the expert,” “the one with the biggest title/salary”) at the head of the table and actually empower every voice, which Aspen was quite good at. We must listen humbly to every voice and allow ourselves to be shaped by every voice at the table. 


This kind of collaboration can be a little... painful. I mean, who likes to have to discuss…everything... equally? Who likes not to have their way seen as the correct way for everyone? Who likes listening more than talking? 


And most of all, who likes being told they missed something or messed up?


While working with Aspen, this happened to us….not from the client but from someone on our own team. After our creative team had gotten the brand narrative to a place we were excited about, the youngest, least experienced account person on our team spoke up. She felt we had glossed over and even omitted experiences relevant to brown-skinned people, like her.  


She was thoughtful but direct. It hurt to hear this... but we listened. We checked our egos and really thought about it, asking for specifics and suggestions. And made changes. In the end, because of her voice at the table, we had a brand narrative that was deeper, richer, and better for everyone. 

 

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash


2.     Authenticity is crucial. But it’s not easy. 


Another thing we learned while working with the Aspen Digital team is that when we show up at the table ready to collaborate rather than dictate, we have to show up as our most authentic selves. 


This requires a commitment to telling the truth, a commitment to humility, and a commitment to vulnerability.


One way we saw this play out with the Aspen team was that they didn’t try to “corporate-lingo-ize” the truth. If a deadline had to change because someone on the team got sick, overworked, or had childcare issues, they didn’t feel the need to lie about it or make up something that sounded less “personal.”


Another way was that no one felt the need to keep quiet to keep the peace or to keep their jobs. If one person had a problem with a piece of copy or a visual, they just said it directly, and the expectation was we would talk about it as a group and deal with it…directly.


That doesn’t always feel like the case in corporate America because there is a largely unspoken but widely accepted belief (and possibly even proof) that in business, “honesty doesn’t pay.” And that humility and vulnerability mean you’re weak. Many companies regularly lie to employees and to the public.  And a lot of employees feel the need to lie, or at least obscure the truth, to get along, to keep their jobs. 


So, it feels risky to be authentic. It feels risky to say the words, “I don’t know.” Or, “I think I made a mistake.” It feels like we’re setting ourselves up to be disrespected, stepped on, maybe even fired. 



But, authenticity and honesty are necessary if we’re going to move forward with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. Why?


Because honesty begets more honesty at that table with all the voices.


When we “come as we are,” admit we don’t know everything, and we don’t always get it right, we immediately create space for others to be their most authentic selves. Then, as folks around the table are brave enough to be honest, authentic, and vulnerable, trust is built. 


With trust, new ideas can be born. New and good things can actually get done.  


We’ve come to believe that it’s only with honesty and trust that nonprofits, for-profits, social enterprise companies, and small businesses will be able to move beyond mere lip-service diversity, check-the-box equity, and talk-a-good-game inclusion.



3.     Patience is so important. But it’s not easy. 


Speaking of not lying, we’re not gonna lie: working with the team from Aspen Digital occasionally tested our patience. Building new habits, listening to every voice at the table, considering every solution, and changing how we’ve always done things take time. 


Being accountable, authentic, vulnerable, and open to new points of view is also incredibly time-consuming.


In a culture obsessed with efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, with short-term wins over long-term good, patience doesn’t feel like a virtue. Patience feels like the enemy. 


And I’ve got to say, personally, I never feel like I have enough time, which makes having patience a hard ask. I suspect I’m not alone in this. I met a woman once with a beautiful symbol tattooed on the back of her neck. I complimented her and asked her what it meant. 



“It’s the Chinese character for patience,” she said. “Or part of it, at least, because I wasn’t patient enough to finish it!”


Oh, yeah, I can relate. And remembering her tattoo is a good way to remind myself that without patience too often our efforts are only half-measures.  We give up too soon. 


Patience is a requirement if we want to make any real strides forward in DEI. We need patience with others, patience with the process, patience with all the many small steps it takes to make an appreciable leap forward, and patience with ourselves because we will not always get it right the first time.


Becoming more diverse, equitable, and inclusive is definitely a journey, not a “one-and-done” kind of deal. But like those Equity Boxes, we all have to start somewhere and keep evolving, keep going.


Wherever you are on the journey, we will leave you with some wise advice from Dr. Maya Angelou, words that both comfort and challenge us:


"Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better."


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Do you have a story or a similar - or different - point of view you'd like to share? We'd love to hear about it.

 







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