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Pivoting into Purpose: Finding Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Smallest of Spaces

Estimated reading time ~ 5 min
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Unfortunately, it happened again. I turned away from the computer for five seconds and held my breath. I had to find the strength to make this decision. I turned back to my laptop and started drafting an email, anxiously tapping away, expressing a hurried and defeated demeanor. Was I going to do this? My third letter of resignation in six months, all in the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

My venture into the professional world began with corporate internships, which opened the door to full-time roles at a few small organizations. At first, these roles seemed ideal. I could work in an intimate atmosphere, feel the weight of my contribution to the organization, and enjoy flexible working hours. Furthermore, I gained mentorship from the founders and insight into the struggles of building a small company before venturing out on my entrepreneurial endeavor. However, there were parts of this dream that transitioned into a nightmare.

I was often one of the few Black employees and usually one of the few women. Always the minority, never in the majority, it became increasingly lonely at times, and I began to notice microaggressions and a difference in treatment that my coworkers didn't experience. In a small company, these inequities felt more isolating. I liked my role and the work I did. However, the disparities became more frequent and unbearable. That night I sat at my computer, contemplating my current work experience and the collective experiences of BIPOC employees in small organizations.

I recognized that this problem was far from something only I was experiencing. Unfortunately, I hadn't been prepped for these workplace dynamics. I also wasn't prepared for the mental gymnastics it would take to navigate it. So that night, I decided to quit my job and become an entrepreneur. I call it my "pivot" into purpose.

Once I fully conceptualized the problem, I knew I wanted to be a part of the solution. I wanted better for myself and those who share critical aspects of my identity. My concerns around identity inspired the name for my new nonprofit organization, iDEIntity (pronounced: i-den-tity).

iDEIntity would be my first entrepreneurial endeavor, a nonprofit organization dedicated to diversity, equity, and inclusion in small organizations - from small businesses to nonprofits to startups. I would take an area of stress and pain for me and use that to birth a new organization dedicated to ameliorating inequities that employees of color face in these spaces.

iDEIntity was launched in November 2022, but even in its relatively young existence - I've learned a lot about building inclusion from the ground up. Here are my tips for finding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the smallest of spaces:

1. For small organizations, intimacy does not equate to inclusivity

When I worked for smaller firms, it was easy to equate the intimacy of the working atmosphere with a truly inclusive environment. Everyone worked together, there was a flat hierarchy, and there was a scrappy yet collaborative element unique to small organizations. However, there were still racial inequities and microaggressions - albeit in more covert ways. Organizations must work to determine what is inclusive by intentional strategy or just due to small scale. A step towards inclusivity is ensuring commitment to ongoing learning and development and using workplace experiences as teachable moments.

2. Be intentional about diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are layered concepts. Each aspect of DEI can have a different focus, making coordination amongst competing goals difficult. In my experience, I have seen founders of small organizations often concern themselves with questions of hiring (diversity), fostering innovative collaboration (inclusion), pay, and company ownership (equity). When it comes to DEI, an intentional organization puts its employees' needs first. Intentionality requires understanding its current DEI climate and how it can best address the pre-existing conditions of its employee population — adopting a people-centered and human-centered approach to developing new programs, initiatives, and systems.

3. Consider equity over equality

Center those with marginalized identities in creating programs, initiatives, and committees that foster belonging. When conceptualizing DEI initiatives, the topics of equity and equality can seem similar but can result in different outcomes. Equality is the commitment to treat all people - irrespective of their backgrounds - equally. There are instances when equality matters, such as ensuring everyone's voices are heard and contributions are valued. However, equity is far more powerful than equality in building an inclusive workforce. Equity addresses the imbalance, and doesn’t just present opportunities equally, but offers support to achieve success. As a Black woman, I have experienced how office culture often dictates how people of color can contribute and doesn’t lean on their perspectives and experiences as thought partners.

4. Favor small and cohesive steps over inaction and avoidance

As an entrepreneur, the thought of fostering DEI in a new organization is daunting. Avoidance makes the necessity for DEI too big to ignore. An inclusive culture is built one step at a time, don’t wait to "get it right," or hire a DEI consultant or Chief Diversity Officer. Small steps - such as providing employees with a day off after a hate crime occurs - can do more for DEI than hiring an army of consultants or people analysts. These steps should be cohesive and part of a larger whole. Little ripples of care, concern, and compassion can cause big waves of belonging and inclusivity to occur.

5. Be mindful of intersectionality, the layering of identities is complex

Intersectionality challenges the notion that our identities are separate and disconnected from each other. In fact, our identities are layered and influence our perceptions and experiences. Thanks to the work of Kimberlie Crenshaw, we have the vocabulary to explain how multiple identities combine to create the fullness of one's sociological existence. And just like I am an individual with multidimensional identities, the workplace is likewise not void of identity. Each workplace has its own identity - the norms, rituals, and culture that provides the organization with a specific way of operating. Similar to how companies want their distinct cultures to be acknowledged and valued, individuals want their intersectionality to be celebrated and recognized. Intersectionality helps us to see individuals as distinct and separate from their demographic categorizations. This can pave the way for innovative programming and interventions that support those with multiple identities that may be overlooked.

6. Understand that mistakes will be made and uncomfortable conversations will be held

Lastly, mistakes will be made in the process of upending structures and systems, or building structures and systems. Through all my experiences, it is evident that DEI can get uncomfortable, and messy, but leaders should lean in. Uncomfortable conversations will be held, and everyone might not support the changes made. Some might feel that DEI policies are "discriminatory" or "ignore their needs," while others might see these policies and programs as significant to their well-being and career progression. Employees can weather the storm by understanding that change might be uncomfortable, but that it is necessary. Honesty and transparency, and fostering a culture of candor, can help concerns be addressed in a more efficient manner and prevent backlash.

About the author

Surayya Walters is a graduate of The Wharton School, where she studied Management, Marketing and Urban Education. She is a social entrepreneur, writer, motivational speaker and advocate. She is the founder of iDEIntity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing diversity, equity, and inclusion to the startup ecosystem. Interested in learning more about iDEIntity and the work they do? They are currently looking for individuals to serve as DEI mentors to small organizations, and for small organizations to enroll in their flagship #Changemaker program. All programming is virtual. You can find the organization at www.iDEIntity.org.

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