The first time I travelled to Minneapolis, people at the nation’s oldest diversity conference were shocked to learn that I owned the only diversity management firm in the capital of the Confederacy. According to Minneapolis residents at the time, you could throw a stone in any direction and hit a diversity consultancy. They were on every block. This was in 2013.
Fast forward to today and there are freelance diversity trainers popping up in every city faster than you can say diversity, equity and inclusion.
Creating an Industry
My mother’s generation of diversity consultants proliferated after the civil rights movement. They created the industry, and many of them gained experience and differentiated themselves in the consulting market as highly skilled thought-leaders and practitioners. Groups of skilled people collaborated, amassed experience, and created what is now the foundational content upon which many diversity trainings are built.
The early consulting firms formed, grew, and established themselves on the market. Many skilled diversity practitioners remained independent and sold their time under the lifestyle business model. They became experts in the field because they invented it and kept at it for decades. The ones who didn’t advance into organizational partnerships, or become in-house DEI leaders for large corporations, were often scooped up by the largest of the diversity firms as they approached retirement age. This allowed them to leverage their expertise and establish an agreeable pace of work/life balance that suited their advancing years.
As a whole generation of practitioners exited the market in one form or another, a void was left behind. I was at the height of my career during this transition because my mother was one of those pioneering diversity practitioners, so I had a head start. The family legacy advantage has served a number of entrepreneurs in my field who took up the social justice mantle. I was able to build up a legacy organization and value business with intellectual property, proprietary methodology, a national network of subject matter experts and an international client list. My story is, however, the exception for a person of color and gender minority. I am non-binary, Black, invisibly disabled, and part of the LGBTQIA community.
The fact that I have multiple intersecting, underrepresented, demographic identities is not unusual as a diversity practitioner. Strangely, an alarming number of people enter the field because someone at their company decided that demographic underrepresentation is enough to qualify someone to be an instant diversity expert. Too few people discuss the fact that making job assignments based on protected categories is in fact, unethical and illegal. Nonetheless, that has, until now, been the biggest pipeline for DEI “experts”.
From Diversity Iceberg to Avalanche
The new way into the field, what I call the DEI avalanche, is people simply deciding that they want to be DEI practitioners or executives. On its face, that is utterly fantastic. It’s exciting to finally have universities with diversity certifications, representation in the C-suite, and a critical mass of actual experts with decades of relevant and proven experience. Unfortunately, my industry lacks unified standards, meaning that anyone can wake up tomorrow and claim diversity expertise. And that is exactly what is happening.
The good news is that the tide is turning in society and the conversation about all things diversity, equity, and inclusion has never been a hotter topic. This means that the demand for our work has never been higher. The bad news is that if you don’t know what you are looking for in a completely unregulated industry, your chances of hiring an inexperienced charlatan have never been higher. I’m here to offer some advice to people who wish to hire diversity expertise and for those who wish to be hired as diversity experts.
Advice for DEI Practitioners
Practitioners and those aspiring to break into the DEI space should get clear on a few things.
- Define exactly which experiences you have that contribute to your unique DEI perspective.
- Define the expertise that you wish to promote — also known as “staying in your lane”
- Scan your network for people who have adjacent DEI competencies that you lack.
These three things are vital because the worst choice is to simply jump into the industry and claim expertise solely on the basis of demographic identity. Don’t get me wrong, underrepresented identities do lend a unique vantage point to the work. It certainly makes it deeply personal and resonant. But if all you can hang your shingle on is one or more identities, you are vulnerable to a great number of adverse outcomes.
Spend time doing the deep personal work required to provide you with resilience for the tough conversation and the lexicon of an ever evolving trade. So once you find your lane, learn everything you can about that area of the field. This way you become an asset to your clients and the other practitioners in the fields who lack your expertise. Again, it is the collaboration across competencies and experiences that forms the backbone of an emerging practice.
Finally, never be ashamed of what you don’t know. You will not only ruin your professional reputation if you claim to be an expert in things that you are not — you will also damage the industry’s reputation. Remember, being unregulated is both an advantage and a liability. Yes, it means you can get in with no standardized qualification, but is also means you can undermine the entire industry just be being careless, or worse, dishonest. Take it from me, your clients will respect you if you stay in your lane and own the expertise you have and refer out the ones you lack. This is another reason building your DEI practitioner network is vital. Attend all of the conferences. Apprentice with an established DEI firm or seasoned practitioner. Invest the time in establishing your credibility.
Advice for Buyers
The advice for practitioners should have shed some light on a few of the pitfalls of the unregulated industry. You can limit your risk if you:
- Understand exactly what you need and don’t just take whatever is offered.
- Lead with data. If your organization lacks substantive DEI metrics, hire a company like TMI Consulting that can offer mixed-method DEI ROI calibration. This allows you to target your strategies and interventions based on real data versus intuition.
- Seek more than training. Training is insufficient as a standalone. You need to create a robust support structure for inclusive culture and diverse recruitment and retention. Equitable experiences can only be calibrated accurately with disaggregated data. Your DEI approach should be an ecosystem not a one-and-done check-the-box exercise.
Buyer beware. Besides a lack of experience and depth of understanding, emerging practitioners often lack business infrastructure, such as liability insurance, access to a wide bench of facilitators, and project management support. So when you are in the procurement process, ask about staffing similar projects, years of relevant experience, insurance coverage, and references. Leaving your people in the hands of an unskilled DEI practitioner can cause untold harm to your effort, your staff, and can yield lawsuits and consequences that cost you exponentially more than you saved by choosing a low-budget shop.
Finally, don’t be afraid to lean into the existing certifications to help support your research. It’s hard to vet vendors. Certifications including B Corp certification, GSA, WeBENC, and SWaM, help purchasers know that a baseline set of expectations has been reached. Most certify that an agency’s organizational structure, ownership, and licenses are up to date. B Corp certification goes further and quantifies a commitment to greater social and environmental accountability. So whatever your needs, values, and concerns may be, the best way to get alignment while reducing risk is to ask the right questions.
Dr. Tiffany Jana (they/them) is the author of four books published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers: Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships across Differences , Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, the second edition of The B Corp Handbook, and Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions, now available for preorder.
Dr. Jana is an international public speaker, and the founder of the TMI Portfolio of Companies — a collection of socially responsible and interconnected companies working to advance more culturally inclusive and equitable workforces. TMI Consulting, a portfolio company, is a Benefit Corporation as well as a certified B Corporation and earned the 2016, 2018, and 2019 Best for the World honor from the nonprofit B Lab that certifies B Corps worldwide.
They have been featured in Psychology Today, Fast Company, SXSW, and Forbes. Dr. Jana gave a TEDx talk in December 2012 as part of TEDxRVAWomen. They earned the 2017 Enterprising Women of the Year Award from Enterprising Women Magazine. And they were named one of the 2018 Top 100 Leadership Speakers by Inc.com.