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Author Jennifer Brown: “Let’s advance the movement to inspire those who are apathetic or inactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion to take some kind of action”

Author Jennifer Brown: “Let’s advance the movement to inspire those who are apathetic or inactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion to take some kind of action”

I would inspire those who are apathetic or inactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion to take some kind of action. There are so many people who fall into this category, and even the smallest action taken by many would make such a big difference in accelerating the growth and potential of us all, as well as lighten the load on some to always be the ones using their voice for change. It would help to change hearts and minds, but also have a hugely positive impact in accelerating innovation.

I had the pleasure to interview Jennifer Brown. Jennifer Brown is an award-winning entrepreneur, speaker, diversity and inclusion consultant, and author. As the founder, president, and CEO of Jennifer Brown Consulting, Jennifer is responsible for designing workplace strategies that have been implemented by some of the biggest companies and nonprofits in the world. She has harnessed more than 14 years of experience as a world-renowned diversity and inclusion expert through consulting work, keynoting and thought leadership. Brown is the host of The Will to Change podcast, which uncovers true stories of diversity and inclusion. A prominent figure in LGBTQ+ entrepreneurship, Brown has been featured in the New York Times, CBS, The Wallstreet Journal, and many more. She is the bestselling author of, Inclusion: Diversity, The New Workplace and The Will to Change and her new book, How To Be An Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive.

Thank you so much for joining us Jennifer! Can you tell us what brought you to this specific career path?

I considered myself a nonprofit activist in my 20s. In the first jobs that I took, I felt compelled to make a difference. It was during this time that I discovered my professional “voice” — in the context of being an employee and working for organizations whose missions I could support. In the next chapter of my career, as I pursued a career as an opera singer, I continued to explore this voice, pursuing a path of artistic self-expression and polishing my love of the stage and performing.

At the time, I couldn’t see how those two different paths could converge — how I could blend these two deeply important and personal ways of using my voice — but the business of a musical career in particular taught me a lot about resilience because, as a performer, you face a lot of rejection before meeting with success. Also, although I had come out as a lesbian at 22, I was closeted as a performer, and worried that I would always have to be.

But, all of a sudden, my opera singing career was cut short by voice surgery. The terror I felt at losing my ability to express myself during the recovery period was traumatizing — I had to remain completely silent for two weeks — but also helped me realize I had been silencing myself in other ways, too, and not bringing my full self to the table. So I set out to reframe my loss as a gift, and reoriented myself to use my difference as an asset, rather than hiding it from view, by using my voice in a different way on behalf of myself and others.

Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you began leading your company?

After 15 years in business, there are so many stories to recount. I think the most interesting decision I ever made was to scale my business beyond myself, rather than pursuing the path of being a solo consultant. Anyone who begins a business that sells something clients want and delivers that service well will eventually be overwhelmed, and you can deal with this in three ways: by saying no to paying work, raising your prices, or hiring people. I recall so vividly the first time a client said to me that I didn’t have to do the whole project myself, but could instead send an employee — because, at the time, I didn’t have any. So, I reached into my network, which in turn gave me permission to begin to think about scaling, and to work not just in but on the business, and I spent every dollar I had on growing my team. It’s an expensive way to go, but if you don’t want to say no to work, you have constraints in terms of what clients will pay you, and you want to work with others, you have to hire a team. It was also a way for me to learn from others, and to feel less alone in what is pretty challenging work (shifting hearts and minds towards an appreciation of diversity and inclusion). I took on a lot of risk in growing beyond myself — not every hire is perfect — but investing in the future, and in the ability to get the message out more broadly, has really paid off.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?

Like any other team, we have made plenty of mistakes over the years, including a few that are too embarrassing to share. One time, we forgot to plan for a certain leg of a multi-leg trip. I had no way of getting from one city to another for a speaking engagement — it seemed like there were no flights, no trains, and no rental cars, and like I’d miss the event altogether! In the end some key players on my team were able to find a car, sent me to a random address in a city I didn’t know to pick it up, and I drove through the night to make it on time. If you’re in business for as long as we’ve been, things are going to happen, but being gracious with one another, banding together to solve problems, and laughing it off can make all the difference in terms of morale and cohesion.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Please explain why.

Unlike many other firms that focus on training, Jennifer Brown Consulting does strategy — arguably the hardest work in the DEI portfolio. The work we do gives leadership a roadmap tailored to their organization and needs, and we often work with leadership to implement initiatives, including working with leadership committees and ERGs. It is hard and amorphous work involving different stakeholders, and each project’s success hinges on ensuring everyone is heard. There are many often divergent opinions to consider, and influence, along the way to consensus and decisions on the way forward. Because it’s organization-wide, and the organizations we work with tend to be Fortune 500s, it’s often nearly impossible to get the full picture. But we are good at it, and not afraid of it — and are privileged to be confidantes and to be considered a part of the team. To have a seat at a client’s table, and be entrusted with this important work, is a huge privilege.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

My second book, How to Be an Inclusive Leader: Your Role in Creating Cultures of Belonging Where Everyone Can Thrive, just came out. At the core of the book is the Inclusive Leader Continuum we’ve developed after doing this work for so many years. We find it’s helpful for people to have a model with stages built in, because it helps them understand where they are, and signposts for them along the road ahead. In this spirit, we’ve also developed the Inclusive Leader Self-Assessment, which is available at www.inclusiveleaderthebook.com and gives anyone who takes it a report about where they are, with lots of suggested resources to help those interested move along the journey at whatever speed they are ready to travel. We thought the assessment was important to offer people to help them understand that they are not alone, and can become more inclusive leaders without sinking into shame or self-judgement about where they are. In this, as in all the work we do, as long as someone is interested in the journey, we welcome you to it. A tool like this is a way forward from paralysis, into knowledge, action and, eventually, impact.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their teams to thrive?

I see my role as founder as being responsible for giving people the agency to shape their role around what they’re passionate about doing, the flexibility to take care of themselves and their personal priorities, and then the trust to achieve the outcomes you have asked from them. Trust is so key — we have so much trust amongst our team, and check in regularly about engagement and satisfaction, always willing when possible to adjust projects and teams — and these things are top priorities in our company so no one hopefully has to starve any part of themselves to do the work we’re doing together.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

My success has turned in part on having a small team of talented senior leaders who can manage all the functionalities I needed to delegate as the company grew. A large team requires multiple levels of seniority, so I interact primarily with my leadership team — who have autonomy over their roles and know they are supported by me — and they oversee the teams within their own functions. I view my role as in support of my team — not the other way around — and they, in turn, respect my time. So, my advice is to delegate as much as you humanly can to a team that thinks about you and is careful and judicious about your role and your time.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was at the end of my opera career, I felt hopeless — I couldn’t imagine what else I was supposed to do. A childhood friend of my mother’s was a career counselor and outplacement professional, and helped people reinvent their careers. She looked at my background — writing, communications, fearless performer — and was able to help me better articulate my work history towards what would be the seeds of my new work, training and development in the corporate world. I don’t think I could have bridged myself from operatic singing to business without someone saying to me that nothing I had done was wasted, but that I simply needed to change how I was marketing my background. And it worked. Now I mentor a lot of people in career transition and strive to do for them what this person did for me. I love doing that for others because I know how important it was to me in what felt like such a dark time.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

With the help of this career counselor, I became a working leadership trainer, got a master’s in organizational change, and began facilitating groups through conversations. This allowed me to flex my activism again, in the sense that I felt I was helping people reach their full potential, not just through conversation but also because, in being able to speak from the stage, and tell my own story, I discovered I had the capacity to create that space for others in their professional lives. In my current role, I speak to people every day about how to leverage their voice or experience to help others, with the goal of enabling ourselves and others to bring more of our full, best selves to our work lives. Between the work I do in diversity and inclusion, offering my technical guidance to people who approach me for it, and putting on conferences and events to grow community, I try to do what I can to make the world better.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust but verify as you build your team: You may, like me, see the best in people, and I’ve come to understand that this is my greatest gift in terms of believing in a better vision for the future, but you always need another set of eyes to make sure hiring decisions are the right ones when you are a new and/or inexperienced entrepreneur.
  2. Hire senior people and let them run: a leadership team made up of experienced people who you can trust and delegate to is expensive, but worth investing in.
  3. Get a line of credit before you need it: Get it while your financials are strong so it’s there when you need it. Every business is cyclical and there will come a time when you need the cash flow.
  4. Hire out when you can: Don’t learn something internally that you can hire out to a specialist; put another way, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish. Instead of learning Quickbooks and entering every receipt, I hired a bookkeeper to handle it, so I could spend time instead on the phone, networking and building relationships. Every second counts.
  5. If you can scale your business beyond you, do it. If you don’t have a lot of role models, especially as an underrepresented founder, try not to be intimidated or overwhelmed by the idea of building an actual company, or brand. Reach out to find people who can be role models, and build that start-up today that can become the industry leader we need tomorrow. We need diverse founders in a broad range of industries.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

I would inspire those who are apathetic or inactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion to take some kind of action. There are so many people who fall into this category, and even the smallest action taken by many would make such a big difference in accelerating the growth and potential of us all, as well as lighten the load on some to always be the ones using their voice for change. It would help to change hearts and minds, but also have a hugely positive impact in accelerating innovation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Please share how that was relevant to you in your life.

Say yes, and figure out how later. This was told to me early on by another consultant — that you have to make money in a variety of ways, at least at the beginning. You can’t be too proud or too purist — I don’t mean in terms of integrity, but rather in terms of finding and taking work where you can get it, even if you think it’s outside your immediate scope of expertise. This is especially important for women — for us, if we’re not 100% confident we can do something, or haven’t done it before, we tend to believe we can’t take it on. But we all have the ability to take on new things and succeed in them, providing that you can leverage the potential others see in you into confidence in yourself. You never know, taking on something new with no track record may turn into a core expertise and change the direction of your organization. And, when you fail (as I have, plenty of times), fail forward — whether or not something works out, the experience will help you grow into the role you’re trying to carve out for yourself.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? They might just see this.

People often connect my message to Dr. Brené Brown, which makes me want to meet her even more than I already do! But I would also love to connect with Oprah, and hear her thoughts on what I do, because she is so wise and talented in connecting the spiritual with representation and activism. I would also love to meet Marc Benioff, and work together to strategize how to inspire more CEOs to take on the issues — including the gender pay gap, LGBTQ+ issues, and homelessness advocacy — that he has taken on. He, and people like him, reveal what executive leadership could look like in the future.