Let's Talk

Bringing good vibes in D&I

This conversation features Bernadette Smith, who is an author, keynote speaker and D&I advisor to top companies. She also finds time to send out the 5 Things newsletter every Saturday morning, which is packed with good news diversity, equity and inclusion stories to inspire organisations and individuals.

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Inclusive Growth Show with Toby Mildon. Future-proofing your business by creating a diverse workplace.

Toby Mildon: Hello, there. Thank you ever so much for tuning in to this episode of the Inclusive Growth Show. I’m Toby, and today, I’m joined by Bernadette Smith. Now Bernadette is a diversity and inclusion keynote speaker and an award-winning author of four books. She is a trusted advisor to Fortune 500 companies in helping to promote an inclusive work environment and celebrate diversity. Bernadette, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you.

Bernadette Smith: Thanks so much, Toby. It’s wonderful to be here.

Toby Mildon: So what you do is fantastic. And what you do and what I do is very similar, but you didn’t start life as a D&I consultant did you? What’s your backstory?

Bernadette Smith: Well, I, in my heart of hearts, am an entrepreneur and I’ve been an entrepreneur for almost 18 years. I started my first company back in Boston, Massachusetts in 2004 when Massachusetts became the first state in the United States to legalize same-sex marriage. In the time before that law went into effect, there were all of these protests trying to change the constitution of the state. And I was attending… I was planning events for a nonprofit. I was attending all of these protests and rallies and hearings. And I was looking around at all of these couples, some of whom had been together for decades, and I thought, “This is gonna happen, this law is gonna go into effect.” And so I wanted to make sure those couples felt they could have a safe experience. So I decided basically right then and there on the Massachusetts State House steps, “I’m gonna become a gay wedding planner.” And so I started a business to be an activist wedding planner to help these couples navigate a very traditional heteronormative wedding industry, very bride-and-groom-focused wedding industry. I wanted them to feel safe and I wanted them to feel free from discrimination and like they could truly, authentically be themselves.

Bernadette Smith: So, as time went on I planned several hundred weddings with couples from all over the world, and including the UK, who came to Massachusetts to get legally married and it was an amazing experience for quite a while. I also wrote three books about same-sex weddings and inclusion, same LGBTQ wedding inclusion, and started speaking and training to those industries: Wedding, travel, hospitality. Created a certification course for those industries to help people in those industries be more sensitive to LGBTQ folks, specifically. So that’s how it all began almost 18 years ago now.

Toby Mildon: That’s really fascinating. And as you said, you’ve now written your fourth book, which is Inclusive 360: Proven Solutions for an Equitable Organization. Can you give us an overview of the book?

Bernadette Smith: Sure. I wrote the book for several reasons, one is I knew that it was time for me to move on from the wedding industry. I had retired as a wedding planner. I had gotten divorced myself. And I moved and I didn’t want to have to rebuild my business. And so I knew that it was time for me to evolve my career. Also, my wedding planning work felt less activisty and more like luxury wedding planner, doesn’t matter about the gay thing. [chuckle] That seemed to be less important to the couples I was working for, working with, and that’s fine. But evolving your business, for me, it caused a professional identity crisis. What kind of company do I wanna build now? Who do I wanna be? What’s important to me? And so as I was going through that process, I really reconnected with my why. And my why is a driving force for what I do. And I’ll talk about the book in a minute, but my why is… Really began in about 2010 when I was working with a woman named Joanne who was about 60 years old. She was a transgender… Is a transgender woman and she hired me to help her become the bride she’d always dreamed of. And she had a lot of fears around planning her wedding to Terry, her spouse to be, her female spouse to be.

Bernadette Smith: And so Joanne approached me because she wanted to feel safe, she wanted to feel like she could, again, be authentically herself. She was afraid that when she was trying on dresses, her shoulders would be too broad or she didn’t have appropriate hips. And she was afraid that her hairpiece would fall off and, of course, all of the fears of discrimination. The types of fears that she had went above and beyond what my same-sex couples were concerned about. Joanne was afraid that her transgender guests would have problems with the bathroom at the wedding venue, for example. So those were the types of considerations that I had to be mindful of. And working with her challenged me to be even more of an advocate than I was before and it really excited me and it inspired me. And on her wedding day, she walked down the aisle escorted by her father who was about 85 or so years old, in an Episcopal church service, to a song performed by the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus. [chuckle] And it was like…

Toby Mildon: Oh, wow.

Bernadette Smith: Absolutely magnificent. And I know that I helped her become the bride she’d always dreamed of. And so when I decided to evolve my business, I was very in touch with my why and this sense of being able to create a feeling of safety and help others feel safe. No matter whether they’re customers or employees, as they move about the world, my why is about helping them feel safe to be authentically themselves. And I have a picture of Joanne on my bulletin board to remind me of that.

Bernadette Smith: Now, the book was sort of my coming out in this new part of my career. It’s the first book that I wrote that has nothing to do with LGBTQ weddings, and it really was my way to prove to myself that I know all this other stuff and that I can deliver it in a way that makes sense to folks. And so, it’s a book that’s really about a holistic approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s not just about human resources and leadership like a lot of the other books out there, it’s also about the customer or the client experience, because that’s a lot of what I did before. Right? In the wedding industry, was about advocating for my customers and clients and helping them feel safe, and so the book very much addresses that part of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion as well.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, ’cause that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get you on the show because of your holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, ’cause in your book, I mean there’s loads of great stuff in there, but you cover off things like product design, shelf space, you’ve got your ARC method, you talk about random acts of inclusion, so let’s start with product design. What’s your take on D&I when it comes to product design?

Bernadette Smith: Well, I think my take is really, we don’t know what we don’t know. And I am cisgender, which means I’m not transgender. I’m white. I’m upper middle class. Like I have a lot of privilege, and I don’t have a disability. Like I have so much privilege just like a lot of the other people who are doing product design. And so, the products that are being designed are not necessarily designed for all, and it means that we don’t always see the full picture, it means that we might not consider other alternatives or other ways of being or the barriers that can prevent someone from having an inclusive experience with a product. So, the book is really has a lot of examples of what companies are doing right, in terms of product design and in terms of all of the stuff. The book is full of examples from best-in-class companies who really have set themselves up first for progressive work and I love that.

Bernadette Smith: I love that it’s really about thinking about things holistically. So product design, you know you really need to make sure, of course, that there are diverse perspectives on the team in order to have inclusive products, but there should be a system of checks and balances. So, really creating a checklist in the process of product design that look for things like or consider things like, “Are we considering people with disabilities?” “Are we considering the needs of transgender people?” “Are we considering the different perspectives that can go along with this?” So, you know there are examples from for example, a restaurant in the state of New Jersey, just this small business, but they have created a space in that restaurant that is specifically for children or people with autism.

Bernadette Smith: And so that’s part of the restaurant, that room in the restaurant has taken into consideration some of the sensory issues that can come up. It has different lighting, it has wait staff that have been trained about providing excellent customer service to people on the autism spectrum, so it’s things like that. And that is in fact, product design. They’ve created an inclusive product at that restaurant, so it can be as simple as that. Another example, is that Comcast Xfinity now has, which is a telecom company here in the US, their customer service is now available in American Sign Language, and those are the types of things that I don’t think about because I don’t use American sign language. I don’t need to use American sign language. But they re-engineered their customer service and their product experience so that people who use American sign language can get the customer service they need. And that’s also about product design.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Bernadette Smith: And so, those are the types of things that are just really the nuances of diversity, equity and inclusion or are the things that I address in this book, like the little… The narrow parts of the experience that again, would be very easy to miss, especially if there’s not diversity on the team, if there are not diverse perspectives on the team.

Toby Mildon: And taking that approach can often lead to so much innovation and you know, unintended outcomes. One of the old school stories was the keyboard was created when a blind countess in Italy wanted to write love letters to her lover, so somebody created a keyboard for her. And now we’re all using keyboards. You know, they’re on all of our devices. And I suppose inclusive product design as you were talking about, leads on to what you call shelf space, really. Can you tell us a bit more about what you mean by shelf space?

Bernadette Smith: Yeah, so shelf space is the types of products that are available in a retail store typically. So, you know and often, the products that show up on shelves come from white-owned businesses. Because white-owned businesses have greater access because of the historical legacy of structural racism, have greater access to these companies that have retail stores essentially, really.

Toby Mildon: Yeah.

Bernadette Smith: We had greater access to educational and professional networks that help us get our products on these shelves. Right. And so, one of the things that’s happened here in the US and also in Canada is something called, the 15% pledge that was created after George Floyd was murdered last year in Minneapolis, Minnesota, here in the US. And the 15% pledge is a pledge that is asking companies to commit to providing at least 15% of their shelf space to black-owned businesses.

Bernadette Smith: And it’s hard to do… It’s so hard to do that there’s a pledge, right? But about 15% of America are black. And so should be fair enough that 15% of the products on shelves are created by black owned businesses, but that’s not the case at all. But major companies are signing this 15% pledge, and… Which means that there’s gonna be that accountability that goes along with it. And it means that the 15% pledge organization is providing resources to help companies meet that pledge, which means that under-represented founders are getting greater resources and they’re getting expanded access to shelf space, which can reduce the racial wealth gap. There’s a lot of wonderful side effects that can go along with the 15% pledge specifically, and increasing shelf space more generally. We need to do this, because here in the States, the recent census data tells us that Generation X, which is a generation… Kids who are just graduating from secondary school, that generation.

Bernadette Smith: There is no dominant race in that generation, and you can’t be what you can’t see, and when people go to retail stores and they’re not finding products that meet their needs or they’re not finding products that represent their own unique diversity, it’s a missed opportunity all around. And increasing shelf space is one way to create equity. Equity is all about changing the systems to give folks a leg up, folks who have been historically disenfranchised a leg up and to fix what’s been wrong over the years, and increasing shelf space is just one way to do that.

Toby Mildon: Yeah, I think it’s really important that people see themselves in the products and services that they buy, they feel represented, ’cause I was born with a physical disability and I use a wheelchair, but there are very few toys for children of disabled characters. Lego have been looking at this recently, looking at Lego characters or diverse Lego characters, but there’s a long way to go with a lot of toy manufacturers and all sorts of products.

Bernadette Smith: Absolutely, and speaking of toys, back to the concept of inclusive product design. Uno, the card game, now has Uno cards in Braille, and kids who are visually impaired can still play Uno, and it’s stuff like that. Those are the types of things that I completely took for granted. ‘Cause it’s just not my own lived experience, but in creating this book… Honestly, this book came about for multiple reasons, but one of the ways I found the content was because for about two and a half years now, I’ve had a weekly newsletter called 5 things, and it goes out on Saturday morning. And the concept behind 5 things is to share what I consider to be good vibes and in D&I.

Bernadette Smith: So by good vibes, I mean things that are inspiring, things that are hopeful, things that are really interesting, fascinating, unique things. And what I wanted to do with this newsletter was to share what’s going right, because when I read the news about diversity, equity and inclusion, and I read a lot of news in order to source the content for 5 things, what I see so much of is what’s going wrong, lots of negative data, lots of examples of what companies are doing wrong, but there’s also a lot of really cool stuff that’s happening that’s going right. And so 5 things is full of the stuff that’s going right, five stories that bring me hope that hopefully organizations can adapt and bring inside their own organization. And 5 things is not just about HR, that’s why… That’s where some of these stories came from, reading about Comcast, reading about that restaurant in New Jersey, reading about Uno cards. Those are the types of things that show up in 5 things because they are hopeful, they are things that other organizations can adapt, and that’s why Inclusive 360 does take that holistic approach because so much of the content comes from 5 things.

Toby Mildon: I like your positive approach, because there are some companies that are doing really great things out there, and also we’re on the same page when it comes to that holistic approach. I make the point in my own book that diversity and inclusion is not just the HR department’s issue, that every part of the business needs to get involved. The people that do marketing need to be thinking about diversity in their campaigns, the people that run the offices and the facilities need to think about the inclusion of buildings and accessibility, so every… It touches every corner of the business. I’ll come back to your newsletter just before we go, but you’ve developed the ARC method. What is that?

Bernadette Smith: The ARC method stands for Ask, Respect, Connect, A-R-C. And it’s a tool that I created to help organizations and people move from problem to solution, ’cause what I found in my work and in my conversations with so many well-meaning people, is that they really have great intentions, but they get stuck in the overwhelm. They get stuck with their competing priorities. And my solution is to follow the ARC. And following the ARC can help us move from problem to solution, get clarity in any situation. We can follow the ARC in a few different contexts. We can follow the ARC to make great organizational decisions by asking hard questions within our organization. Questions like, what percentage of the products on our shelves come from diverse suppliers? Questions like that, but it’s not just enough to ask the question, we also have to respect the answer, respect the process, don’t dismiss the data. So R is the respect, don’t dismiss what we find. And then the C is to connect, and the connect is about solutions, it’s about accountability, it’s about moving into action.

Bernadette Smith: And so the Connect is really where the action is, but in order to get to that place, we have to first establish the baseline. And that’s where the ask comes in. Another context of the ARC method is in interpersonal relationships. So you can use the ARC method to better get to know someone who’s different from you simply by asking a question like, “What’s your experience been like with X?” or “Can you tell me how you’re feeling about X?” those types of questions, open-ended questions, compassionate questions.

Bernadette Smith: And also, in the ARC method, I teach folks to share some of their own experience before getting too nosy about someone else and so by asking a question, respecting the answer, which means you’re not on your phone. It means your arms aren’t crossed, you’re not interrupting, you’re not dismissing. That’s important, the R. And then Connect is about paraphrasing, validating, and helping them feel like you are actually listening and fulfilling the promise that you made when you started the process. There’s a third context of the ARC that’s about speaking up against micro-aggressions, which I won’t get into today, but it’s a way to… In general, it’s just a way to use your words if you witness something that can be potentially harassing or a potentially offensive statement or a micro-aggression. So if you use the ARC method in these three different contexts, the target here is to create an inclusive culture.

Toby Mildon: Definitely. And if the person listening today is interested in learning more about the context of the ARC method, then they should definitely get your book ’cause it’s all there. Before we go, a couple of more things. First of all, random acts of Inclusion, I like that. What’s… Reminds me of that film was that random acts of kindness where you, yeah, pay for somebody’s coffee and then you get that butterfly effect, don’t you, of positivity. But what’s your random acts of Inclusion?

Bernadette Smith: Yeah, so Random Acts of Inclusion is sort of my catch-all chapter [laughter] in the book where other things didn’t fit. So it’s about inclusive facilities, so for example, diaper-changing tables or baby-changing tables not just in women’s rooms but also in other restrooms as well. Setting up all-gender restrooms is a random act of Inclusion. So it’s about inclusive facilities. It’s also about inclusive events. So how are you establishing your meetings, events, and events, whether they’re in person or whether they’re remote, to be more inclusive, LGBTQ+ and beyond? How do you have inclusive remote meetings? It’s those types of things. The book… The Random Acts of Inclusion chapter has some checklist-y things in it, especially for the meetings and events sections, because it’s really about taking a holistic approach even in the context of a meeting to be more inclusive or when we’re in the context of an event. So in the context of an event, you would wanna be inclusive of things like folks who are transgender by having all-gender restrooms on site, by having pronouns on name badges, by having… You wanna be inclusive of potentially new parents by having places where there can be breastfeeding or pumping areas, music and art from different cultures. So it’s things like that that show a more comprehensive approach to not just events but facilities and other random things.

Toby Mildon: That’s cool. So and this is, of course, The Inclusive Growth Show. What does Inclusive Growth mean for you?

Bernadette Smith: Inclusive Growth means to me that we all have work to do because it’s not just about you and me who do this for a living. It’s about all of the other people who are on this journey. Whether they know it or not, [laughter] it’s about all of us growing inclusively. And I actually just had a LinkedIn message yesterday from someone I’ve known for years who just bought my book. And the book arrived at her house and her partner picked up the book. And she sent me a message because her partner doesn’t typically read books, comes from a conservative family, has always been indifferent about progressive topics. And her partner basically read most of the book last [laughter] night, someone you wouldn’t expect to be on this journey. He picked up the book and she sent me a picture of him. She sneakily took a picture of him reading it. And so Inclusive Growth, for me, means all of us doing this together because we all have work to do.

Toby Mildon: Brilliant. I totally agree. And particularly, when we look at power and privileges, it is really important for all of us to take responsibility for creating a level playing fields. Now just before you go, if the person listening to this episode wants to get onto your newsletter or get a copy of your book, where do they go?

Bernadette Smith: They can buy a copy of the book on Amazon or at your local bookseller, bookshop. On Bookshop.org, you can buy a copy of the book. You can go to inclusive360book.com, which gives you more information about the book. And the newsletter, you can sign up if you go to theequalityinstitute.com/join. And I love 5 Things. It’s really my… My favourite habit of the week is writing this newsletter. And it’s really become a labour of love and it’s a discipline. Putting out a newsletter every week requires a lot of discipline, but I get a lot of really great feedback on it. And I’m glad to be leading with inspiration rather than fear.

Toby Mildon: Absolutely. Brilliant. Well, Bernadette, thank you ever so much for joining me today on this episode. It’s been lovely to catch up with you. If you’ve enjoyed what Bernadette has been talking about, then definitely go and get her book and sign up to her newsletter ’cause it provides five really practical, useful things every week, so definitely worth getting that into your inbox every week. Thank you for tuning in to The Inclusive Growth Show today and I look forward to seeing you on one of the upcoming episodes coming out soon. So thank you very much. Cheers. Good-bye.

Speaker 1: Thank you for listening to The Inclusive Growth Show. For further information and resources from Toby and his team, head on over to our website at mildon.co.uk.

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