Slalom’s first CIDO talks about navigating tough conversations, fulfilling her purpose, and creating space for people to self-reflect and grow.
Tell us a bit about your background in I&D [inclusion and diversity].
My journey in the I&D space really started at a young age. I grew up in the inner city of Chicago. It’s a city wrought with historical issues of racism. There continue to be areas in the city where, as a Black woman, I know I can go at certain times of the day and at other times, I’d need to ensure that I’m making my way back to safety.
I grew up in the neighborhood now known as the Bronzeville area. Whether walking or driving east to west, there was a time when my family and I could not safely go farther than White Sox Park. However, I had to travel past White Sox Park every day to get to High School. It was during these commutes that I would see the tapestry of racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity that ignited my curiosity—specifically why various races and cultures lived differently and appeared to be in such defined geographies on a street that ranged approximately five miles. I simply wanted to know why different groups had such different experiences from one another.
To be clear, I would not trade my childhood and young adult experiences in Chicago for anything. The rich culture, food, music, and arts scene that Chicago offers are second to none!
Those experiences, and then having other experiences through education in Mississippi and Minnesota [Iesha did her undergrad at Tougaloo College, a Historically Black College and University, and has an MA from the University of Minnesota], really ignited my passion for I&D, and my passion continued to grow.
You’ve been working in the I&D space for 20 years now. What led you to this role as Slalom’s first CIDO?
I was very excited about working for an organization that would allow me to take the best of every experience that I had, lead with my authentic voice and unapologetic passion for inclusion and diversity, and advance a culture where everyone is able to succeed.
I’m joining Slalom in the midst of three global pandemics—health, economic, and racial injustice—and it is critical that I use my voice, talent, and hands to enable action. Joining a team where the symbols of my uniqueness will be valued, and my authenticity will be embraced, reminds me of what Marcus Garvey once said, “The Black skin is not a badge of shame but rather a glorious symbol of national greatness.” While there is unrest across the world, the symbols that make us each unique can no longer be what separates us—they have to drive us to unite.
It’s important that when we walk away from these conversations, individuals know that we will show grace to each other. Conversations shouldn’t disparage or berate an individual.
Describe your leadership style.
I’m a servant leader. I’m diplomatic, but very direct. I’m very crisp and very clear. I am unapologetically who I am.
I’m a servant leader because I believe that I’ve been entrusted to shepherd talent for a period of time. My role is to create an environment where people are able to grow, stretch, and develop in ways that they haven’t before—where they walk away thinking and learning something new, so that they can be exceptional in the next role they move into.
My role as a servant leader is to create a legacy of individuals who are not only able to blaze trails with the torches they’ve been handed, but who will be ready to pass that torch to someone else—creating space for the next individual to move forward.
What are your strategies for navigating conversations that may make some people uncomfortable?
When I came into this I&D work 20 years ago, I had this naiveté and an idealistic sense that surely everyone wants people of uniqueness to succeed. Surely, we all want to be fair and equitable. Surely all leaders want to create space for individuals to succeed regardless of their experiences and where they come from. But everyone’s perspectives and paths are different. We don’t all view things the same way.
I’m now at a place where I realize there will be tough conversations. That’s why they call it work. I see risk as an opportunity. If a topic feels challenging or risky, there’s an equal opportunity for reward. I no longer think about what I can do to make people comfortable, because in most instances, the topics of discussion are not comfortable.
My role is to create a safe space where people can share different perspectives on difficult matters, and they will be heard and respected. It’s important that when we walk away from these conversations, individuals know that we will show grace to each other. Conversations shouldn’t disparage or berate an individual. The goal is to open up the conversation and lead people on a journey of self-reflection and self-discovery that can be transformative.
My approach is to go into those conversations with the end in mind. I ask myself, “What does success look like?” Success may not be that everyone is on the same page when the conversation ends. But success might be that one individual walks away from a dialogue and decides to take an action that creates a space for him or her to expand and diversify their network to ensure they’re getting many perspectives and insights on how to address an issue, project, or client need. Or maybe they take action to sponsor or advocate for a diverse teammate, which opens a door to greater visibility for the teammate and positions him or her for promotion.
What’s a misconception about inclusion and diversity in the workforce that you’ve come across?
There’s an African proverb: “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.” This proverb reminds me of when firms make good faith efforts to diversify their workforce representation and yet do not equally consider the workplace that the talent is being brought in to. The diverse talent hears about an organization’s welcoming workplace or rich heritage, but their lived experience is much different—which leads me to a few misconceptions about I&D I've come across in my time doing this work.
One prevailing misconception is that it can be achieved through hiring diverse talent—that it’s about the numbers, that it’s about getting to a place where a company’s workforce is representative of the community in terms of gender, race, and ethnic diversity. Representation is indeed critical—diversity begets diversity. However, systems and processes must be assessed to understand where the gaps and risks are, and swift action has to be taken to address those opportunities. This is a component of fostering an inclusive and diverse environment. But there are diversities that you can visibly see and others that you can’t—for example, individuals of diverse abilities or individuals in the LGBTQ+ community.
Another misconception is that if we train everyone on unconscious bias, everyone will recognize their unconscious bias and we will have a better working environment. And while that’s a great goal to have, there’s still work required—individually, at the group level, and at the organizational level—to ensure we’re creating that environment where bias is not tolerated or allowed. And, most importantly, where individuals can have the self-discovery to realize, “I do have a bias, and these are the actions that I’m taking to address it.” It’s one thing to realize you have a bias. It’s another thing to take the action to address it.
How has the corporate landscape changed in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement? How has it impacted you personally?
Let me start with why it’s personal to me. Every day I am living the reality of ensuring that my life matters and the lives of my children matter and the life of my husband matters. I want to ensure that our organization is creating a safe space for each us to feel and experience the unrest that has occurred, be vulnerable, and have collective dialogue about where we can drive awareness and change.
This is about the lives that were taken by gun violence in the United States. It is about the senseless loss of lives—of Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and many others. In the US, the Black Lives Matter movement has given voice to and created awareness of critical issues and opportunities in our US nation that we have not addressed. Our country has a torn ACL. Black lives must and should continue to matter. This must and will be addressed.
But make no mistake, the Black Lives Matter movement is a global movement. It has made the world focus on how we begin to erase and eradicate systemic issues of racism and begin to address the opportunities around creating socioeconomic mobility. I believe there has been a global awakening and global reckoning that the Black Lives Matter movement has created. It has shown unity and the humanity of a global nation. You don’t have to be Black to be an ally to the Black Lives Matter movement. We’re seeing our joint humanity on a global stage.
What is your purpose? What drives you?
My purpose is to live life authentically and with selfless grace. I want to create a legacy for my three daughters—Chloe, Gabrielle, and Hannah—and to be the example of womanhood for them. I want to show them what it means to be a mother first, and to be a woman of color in corporate America driving and leading with integrity.
I do this work because I believe that it is my contribution to the global society and that it’s the work I was born to do. It’s the only work that I’m meant to do, and it won’t get done unless it gets done through me, because it’s my contribution, just like you have a contribution to the global society that only you can do. And if you don’t do it, there will always be an earnest yearning in you to accomplish it. When you’re connected to your purpose and the work that you need to do, it’s like you get tingles all over, because you know you’re doing what you’re here to do.
For me, that’s what Slalom represents—my ability to take everything that I have been able to do and experience personally and professionally, build upon what has already been laid by I&D leaders before me, pour all that together, and work with others on behalf of Slalom to give back to the global society.
I do this work because I believe that it is my contribution to the global society and that it’s the work I was born to do.
Tell us about a thought leader who has inspired you.
There are many, but one stands out. I read a lot about coaches and their leadership styles. [NBA coach] Doc Rivers refers to the 'Ubuntu' philosophy, roughly translated as: “I am because we are.” We all have knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, and education that we can contribute and that we must contribute. But we have to do it together. I’m able to do what I need to do because someone else did what they were supposed to do. That is Ubuntu.
If you could go back and give advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Simply put, “You are more than enough.” I had a lisp for most of my childhood. I went and saw a speech pathologist from the fifth grade all the way through my senior year of high school. I feared speaking publicly. I avoided my communications requirement to graduate from undergrad like nobody’s business.
When I realized that I had a story that should be shared and that I had something to say, I pushed against that fear of, “Well, what if they hear my lisp?” Or, “What if I don’t speak perfectly or eloquently enough?”
I’m grateful to my mother and my grandmother who continued to tell me, “Iesha, you are enough,” even when I didn’t believe it. And most of all, I’m incredibly grateful to my speech pathologist who worked with me for so many years and gave me the tools and resources to be able to overcome that which would have kept me silent.
What do you like to do to recharge?
I absolutely love music—from classical to R&B to jazz. My grandfather was John Coltrane’s tour manager, and I grew up with a huge appreciation for music. I played the flute growing up. I love just experiencing the music, appreciating the genius of it, and relaxing.