Making diversity reality, not a goal: HQ Raleigh’s journey to intentional inclusive innovation

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Editor’s note: Jess Porta is director of HQ Raleigh.

RALEIGH – The beginning of February marks the start of Black History month. Traditionally, this is the one month (and unfortunately sometimes the only month) when organizations highlight their diversity efforts. Two years ago, this might have been our only approach to diversity and inclusion as well. We were a company with a great culture and incredible core values so we felt that by having a warm, compassionate environment, we were building an inclusive culture. However, this was before we learned the importance of being intentional.

Jess Porta

My journey to truly understanding diversity and inclusion came in late 2016 following a conversation with community leader, Ken Lewis and HQ co-founder, Christopher Gergen. Ken and Christopher found themselves having the same conversations about diversity and inclusion with startups and large companies in the Triangle Area. Everyone wanted to do the right thing but pointed back to having “pipeline” issues or saying that they would hire more diverse candidates but “the candidates just weren’t there.” Ken and Christopher found themselves in front of well-meaning companies who became involved in different activities, but lacked the readiness to move the needle. So together they developed the Triangle Diversity Business Council which is a collective group of companies in the Triangle who want to be more intentional about increasing diversity at the leadership level and building inclusive cultures to match. As a part of this membership, companies sign the “Diversity Pledge” which underlines their general commitment to diversity and inclusion, specifically asking them to implement the Rooney Rule and to track and publish their data.

Following the inception of this organization, HQ decided that while we were creating an authentic culture ourselves, we needed to be far more intentional in diversifying our team and our community.  So in 2016, we added a new core value, “Embrace Diversity.”

We held a celebration, honoring our new core value. We had just 1-2 people of color in the room celebrating with us…. which was disappointing.

Raymahl Sutton is a long-time HQ member and the founder of a platform called Applyable, a software which removes identifying features from the application process. At the time, Ray was working long days at his day job and coming to HQ on nights and weekends. Ray and I would occasionally chat about the weather and joke about the hustle in passing as he was walking in for the night and I was leaving for the day. But one day, I asked Ray one of those uncomfortable questions for a white woman to ask a black man: “Do you feel included at our community in HQ?” Ray thought for a moment and then let me know the difference between being invited to a party and being asked to dance, something I had heard Ken speak about before, but never in practice. It was a hard thing to hear, that we created a great vibe, but he didn’t feel entirely included. This didn’t sit well with me. What could we do to create an inclusive environment where people of all races and identities felt welcome and included? Or more importantly, why was building our friendly culture not enough?

Thankfully, Christopher was already asking these types of questions so in early 2017, we brought on Reggie McCrimmon, to focus intently on helping HQ grow into a more inclusive environment along with the Triangle Diversity Business Council.

Intentionality – Make it happen

Through conversations with Ken, Reggie, Ray and all of the members of the Triangle Diversity Business Council, we landed on the understanding that the missing piece was intentionality. We wanted to increase our diversity and become more inclusive, but we had thought that this desire to do the right thing would create the inclusive environment on its own.

Intentionality for us was learning about unconscious bias, doing our own research, asking the right questions, listening for understanding, breaking away from the ‘one size fits all’ marketing approach, and creating opportunities for the disenfranchised and historically marginalized, who may have never known about our community otherwise.

We have entered the phase of doing the right thing, rather than only thinking about the right thing. In the past year alone, we have implemented the Rooney Rule for hiring, altered our operational policies to be more flexible for individuals from all backgrounds, been an active member and host for the Triangle Diversity Business Council, and ultimately we have seen our diversity increase by nearly 67%. And man, were we missing out! The ideas, the level of innovation, the collaboration that can happen when you become more inclusive is hard to quantify, yet has by far been the most incredible, astounding lesson learned in all of this.

We still have a lot of room to grow though. We have to collect diversity data that can be transparent and compared to other companies in our ecosystem. We have to create a strong pipeline for student entrepreneurs coming from our local HBCUs. Additionally, we have to develop our own staff training and operational policies to focus on inclusion.

I’m sharing our story about our ongoing journey to become a more inclusive environment not because I want to hold up our efforts, but because I want to challenge other companies and organizations who think they are already embracing diversity to ask themselves about how intentional they have been in doing so. I would encourage companies within this community and beyond to ask the right questions of the right people to get an honest answer. And once you do, get started on doing the hard work. If you don’t know where to start, let us know; we have great resources between the Diversity Council and Reggie’s work at HQ. And if you are a part of this community and you don’t feel included or that your voice is heard, please, please let us know and tell us how we can continue to grow and improve.

(C) HQ Raleigh. Reprinted with permission. 

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