178 See It to Be It : Diversity and Inclusion Strategist (w/ Kristina Smith)

In our seventh See It to Be It podcast interview, Amy C. Waninger chats with Kristina Smith, a diversity and inclusion strategist who assists organizations to exceed expected business results through designing and implementing diversity, inclusion and engagement strategies. Kristina explains to us how she got into her field of work, and she also shares a few resources and organizations that seek to aid any aspiring professionals in the diversity and inclusion, consulting, or training and development spaces.

Connect with Kristina on LinkedIn.

Find out more about the Association for Talent Development.

Interested in the Institute for Diversity Certification? Click here.

Be sure to utilize the resources offered by SHRM.


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and I’m really excited to talk to y’all about something really important today. You know we try to mix it from time to time. We have our full episodes and we have B-Sides. You know, we’ll have guest hosts. We do different things. We do listener letters, you know what I’m saying? We have something else special for y’all today, and what it’s called is the See It To Be It series, okay? This is an interview series highlighting professional role models in a variety of industries. The goal of this series is to draw attention to the vast array of possibilities available to emerging and aspiring professionals, with particular attention paid to support black and brown professionals. Many of y’all should remember Amy C. Waninger. She is the author of Networking Beyond Bias, and she was a guest on the Living Corporate podcast in Season 1 to talk about effective allyship. Well, Amy has continued on with Living Corporate as a writer, and she’s also blessed us with a partnership in getting a special series out. So what you’re gonna hear is Amy talking to a variety of black and brown professionals, as I said at the top, from a variety of industries, and it’s gonna be really cool because it’s really gonna zoom in from a technical perspective on what they do while at the same time hopefully inspiring folks who may not see themselves in an industry to actually see themselves, hence the title “See It To Be It,” you know what I’m saying? All right, so with that being said, I’m gonna go ahead and dip. The next thing you’re gonna hear is an interview with Amy C. Waninger and an amazing minority professional. Catch y’all next time. Peace.

Amy: Hi, Kristina! Thank you so much for joining me today.

Kristina: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Amy: It’s always a pleasure to see you, and I know the last time you and I actually saw each other face to face was at the Diversity 4.0 conference in National Harbor, Maryland, and that was so much fun to see you there. It was great because you and I had met before online, through a webinar I believe, and then when we saw each other we were both just–we were doing the jazz hand, you know, girl squeal because we were so excited to meet each other in person, so.

Kristina: That was a lot of fun, and I was really so excited and so thrilled that you were there. That was awesome.

Amy: Likewise. So I’m glad to be with you again today. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the work that you’re doing and how you got involved in that work, because I want to try to expose more young people to different industries and different roles and different opportunities that are waiting for them in the world that maybe they’re not aware of already. So the first thing I wanted to ask you–so you do diversity and inclusion consulting, and I wanted to ask you, how did you get into that work? And what appealed to you about the work that you do?

Kristina: First of all, I really love what I’m doing, and I feel like right now is the time to be in this arena. For many many years–I started in the field of training and development and really enjoyed helping organizations move from one level to the next, whether it was working with a team of people or an individual through coaching or team building or strategic planning. I just love that kind of work, and yet all of my life, being a woman of color, I was constantly aware of how people were impacted in school or in the workplace. So when I was growing up, I went–from first through eighth grade I went to a predominantly–actually it was an all-black elementary school, and then in high school I went to an all-white school where there were 100 students, all girls, and only four African-American students. So it was a dramatic difference, and I could see the privilege that had when I was in school that I never experienced when I was in elementary school. I could see the privilege and how people were treated differently, and the experience would just really open my eyes dramatically. So I carried a lot of, in my heart, this feeling of “Things need to be different,” and I was always asking myself the question, “What role can I play in this making things different?” So going through the training and development, I had a real passion for learning. That’s one of the things that just makes me me. I’m a lifetime learner, and I’ve been sharing information that I’ve learned with other people. I just love sharing information with people. So as I began to see so many organizations starting to be impacted by their lack of information about people who are different than mainstream and the impact it was having on their market share or the people that were being impacted, I just started–my heart started racing, and I started thinking, “This is the time to really start to do this work that I’ve been carrying in my heart since high school,” really, and the forces were really coming together, and I just felt like, “Wow, this is it.” So I’m so excited to have jumped into the pool in doing the work that I’m doing.

Amy: I think that’s fantastic. Now, what you described, I remember high school–you know, going in that, like, eighth grade, ninth grade time frame, as just a teenager as being traumatic, and what you’re talking about is a whole different level of trauma – the culture shock of going from a place where you didn’t have to think about–you didn’t have to think about race because you were, you know, one of many, right? And then going into a place where you were other for the first time. And not just all of the adolescent drama that comes with being that age, but then that extra layer at that time to me just sounds like an intensely painful experience.

Kristina: It was really intense, and it really let me know that I was very different, and what’s very interesting is originally I was not accepted into the school. My grandmother was the director of guidance counselors for D.C. public schools, and she went up to the school and advocated on my behalf. But once I got into the school, I was able to discern just from conversations what people’s SAT scores were, what they had done in grade school and so on and so forth, and in many cases my SAT scores were much higher than other people who had gotten in, and so at first it made me feel less than when I was going to school because I thought, “I must not be as smart as these other people,” you know? And I just felt like, “Oh, wow. Maybe I don’t belong here,” and as I started talking to people I was like, “Oh, my God. I’m smarter than they are.” [laughs] So it was interesting, but it made me realize another level underneath that. No, this is not about achievement. This is something totally different.

Amy: And I think that’s interesting too, that you went from having sort of an impostor syndrome approach to it to realizing that you weren’t falling short of a standard that existed, you were being held to a much higher standard than had existed previously.

Kristina: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Amy: And I think that’s the case for so many people who are onlys or one of a few, right, who are integrating spaces for the first time perhaps or, you know, even very slowly over time. So I think it’s important for people to understand that, if they’re going through something like that, it may be the first time where they are, but it’s not the first time. [?]

Kristina: Absolutely, and it does feel like that. When you are there, seemingly alone, it feels very overwhelming. It can feel very overwhelming, but, you know, I got through it, and I’m really glad I did, and I’m really glad that that which I carried in my belly for so long made me, you know, secretly yearn to do something to make it better for other people.

Amy: That’s fantastic, yeah. I think there are two kinds of people, right? There are people who let something like that fester and become a negative in their lives, and then there are people who almost encase it and make a pearl of it, and I’m so glad that there are people like you, that make a pearl out of some, you know, some irritant, some painful experience, because, you know, that makes it so much easier for the next generation, for the next person, you know? For the next person that experiences what you’ve been through.

Kristina: Yeah, and it really does develop–it helps to develop compassion, you know, and an understanding. So I’m not bitter about any of those experiences. I am just on the look-out for “Who can I help?” You know, “Who can I pat on the back, hold their hand, give a hug, whatever?” Because it’s a unique experience.

Amy: Absolutely. So getting back to the work that you do. What has surprised you the most, or what have you discovered about the work that you do that you didn’t expect before you got into it?

Kristina: I just thought that with all of the companies that have experienced major faux pas, major mistakes that they’ve made through marketing or, you know, just some kind of advertising inappropriately their brand, that more companies would be actively saying, “We need a more diverse leadership team. We need someone that will help us not fall down the rabbit hole.” And so I’m really surprised that more companies are not actively reaching out. It’s like companies one after another are taking the fall. [laughs] And I have even posted on various social media platforms, “When are companies going to really wake up to the fact that they have to be thoughtful?” They need to reach out to people who are different to help them build a brand that is not gonna be negatively impacted or cause them to lose market share because they make a mistake that they’re not even conscious of that in many cases that it’s a mistake.

Amy: Absolutely, and I’m gonna jump on that a little bit, because I see so many things in the news, right? I mean, the examples–the examples are just so many, right? We’ve seen it happen to Starbucks, Papa John’s… what’s the–

Kristina: Oh, the Dove commercial.

Amy: The Dove commercial. We saw it with–there was the clothing brand H&M, and was it Prada recently that had the sculptures in their store display windows? And you would think just like companies manage risk in so many other ways, right–they talk about things like cyber-security risk because that could affect their bottom line, they talk about, you know, employee theft because that could affect their bottom line, they talk about succession planning, and they talk about all of these things, right? But then they have this risk, this PR risk at a minimum, not to mention the lawsuits that come from, you know, racial discrimination in the workplace. And it seems like there’s this gap of understanding that that’s a risk that needs to be managed in a holistic and proactive way, just like they manage, you know, property loss or, you know, talent departure and turnover and things like that.

Kristina: I hear a blog in the making. [laughs]

Amy: [laughing] Absolutely. Yeah, so getting companies to understand that this pain point is just waiting for them to step in it rather than waiting until–and GM was another one in the news where they had just a horrible work environment from a racial standpoint at one of their locations, and I don’t understand why a company would wait to be the next GM or the next Prada or the next H&M, why they wouldn’t want to get in front of that now. So yeah, we’ve got some work to do, don’t we?

Kristina: Yeah, we do. We have a lot, but I think the thing that’s so interesting to me is really how polarized we’ve become. When I look at the Gillette commercial that was just out recently, I loved the commercial. I thought it was really awesome, and yet it got a lot of pushback, and so I thought, “Wow, we really need to have more and more and more conversations within our families, within our communities, within organizations, corporations,” because somehow there’s something that’s really kind of broken in one sense, that people are not understanding, and regardless of what people think, our world is changing. Our world is changing, and people are gonna be really impacted, and a lot of people are not prepared. It’s like being on the beach and here comes the tsunami, and I’m not talking about people coming into the country. There are enough people in the country already who are diverse enough. The change is gonna happen.

Amy: Absolutely, yeah. The population shift in and of itself within our borders, right, is enough to trigger–you would think to trigger some change in attitudes and behaviors, and when you add to that the globalization of world markets, the globalization of–most companies have, in some way, a global talent pool that they’re working with. They’re trying to appeal to markets that maybe they’ve never entered before, and that’s hard to do if you don’t change your internal perspective and know how to have those conversations. And so that actually brings me to a question I wanted to ask you. So there are a lot of companies now that are doing more. You mentioned Gillette, but I’m talking about internally. Not in their advertising or in their marketing but internally companies seem to be doing more to prevent sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace, I think as a result of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement. There seems to be a little bit more understanding or at least solidarity among women now that we’re just not gonna take it anymore and we’re not gonna look the other way when there’s bad behavior going on. And so I’m wondering, are you seeing that in the work that you’re doing? That companies are being a little bit more proactive about sexual harassment?

Kristina: Yes, absolutely. And I mean, you know, most companies have had sexual harassment training, but now–and so every year most organizations have to go through–you know, their folks have to go through sexual harassment training. Now what I’m seeing is that people are really starting to step up in enforcing, really enforcing, this–what’s been mandated, you know, technically or through HR. I was recently hired by an organization who–this is a tech organization. It is predominantly young white males, and it’s a mid-sized company. They have maybe six to eight females, and the women were complaining of sexual harassment, but it’s not really–it’s more like they’re being left out of important meetings, and so they were beginning to complain, and so we’re working on a strategy to have conversations with the men in the organization about, you know, “How do we change this before this becomes a real problem, you know?”

Amy: Absolutely, because if you’re not including everyone in conversations, #1: they’re missing out on information, so they can’t do their jobs. But #2: you’re not getting their input, and you’re not allowing them to be a part of the innovation of the company. You know, you’re ignoring really valuable perspectives by shutting people out, and presumably these women were hired because they were qualified and they had something to contribute. I’m wondering too though–and this is not my idea. I was at a conference, and I was listening to someone speak, and she was talking about “Why is it that we mandate sexual harassment training in the workplace but we don’t mandate racial harassment prevention training in the workplace?” And I was wondering if you’ve seen any companies that are doing that, that are actually talking about racial harassment so that they don’t become the next GM?

Kristina: Well, you know, I think some of the larger companies, absolutely. So the whole thing with Starbucks was centered around race, you know? And I think some of that is going on, but not a lot, and I think primarily because for most African-Americans, they have learned to really tolerate, they’ve learned that this is just the way it is and you’ve got to learn to work with the system. However, and this is digressing a little bit but I’m aware. Sometimes I digress and I don’t realize it, [laughing] but I realize I’m digressing a little bit here. You know, the National Women’s March was in Washington–well, it was all over, but there was a really big one in Washington, D.C. I had a work commitment so I could not attend, but I did go to, the very next day, a conference of women that was spearheaded by Karen Fleshman, who is–

Amy: I adore her.

Kristina: I do too, and I got to meet her in person. She was here from San Francisco.

Amy: And so Karen Fleshman is–she’s an anti-racism activist, and her company I believe is called Racy Conversations, and she is a white woman who has made it her mission to lead the first anti-racist generation in the United States, and she’s phenomenal.

Kristina: It was really exciting. When I tell you it was exciting–because first of all, I don’t know, maybe there were 120, maybe more, women who had been to–most of them had been to the Women’s March. Half of the room was white females, the other half were African-American or women of color. Great conversations. Really, really, really great conversations. It was really thrilling. I was just so excited, because these women were standing up saying, “We have to take responsibility. We cannot hide behind our privilege any longer,” #1, and there were just some amazing things that came out of this conference, and one of the things that came out of the conference was we made it a really safe place for people to say whatever they thought or felt without being judged or criticized. We knew we were all coming from a place from love and concern. But one white female stood up because–one of the concepts that came out of the conference, and we talked about further, was a statement made that white women should evolve enough so that women of color can lead this revolution, and a white woman said, “I’m not sure I understand why that should be the case.” And you could tell that she was really grappling with why, and there was a woman–and I am so sorry I don’t have her name, I’m gonna have to look her up. She was a professor, I think from Stanford University, and she teaches African-American politics, history, and she was the moderator. She was the facilitator. And one of the things that she said… “Let me see if I can help you understand.” And I’m sort of putting my own spin on it, but you’ll get the concept. She said, “What if you and nine of your white female friends are walking through a mountain, and all of a sudden you fall into a deep abyss in the mountain, and you’re lost and you’re frightened? But then you come across a group of women of color who have been in this abyss for 300 years, but they have learned to navigate what’s going on down there in the mountain. They’ve learned how to find food. They’ve learned how to fend off the animals. They’ve learned how to survive in this abyss. Who are you gonna turn to for help? Are you gonna turn to the woman who fell in with you just, you know, four hours ago, or the people who have been there for 300 years?” It was fantastic. It was just really–and the woman said, “I get it,” and everyone in that room did a collective sigh, like, “We get it. We get it.” It was so powerful. It was so encouraging.

Amy: And I think white women have–you know, we’re new to this party, right? The oppression that we’ve felt has not been as severe, it has not been as acute and as sustained. Just because something’s chronic doesn’t mean that it’s not an acute pain, and I think that for a lot of white women, you know, we’re like, “Oh, my gosh.” We’re so tired of these conversations, and, you know, to your point, black women have been tired of these conversations for 300 years, and it’s–and not only that, but I think, to the credit of black women, when black women succeed, they bring everyone else along with them. When white women succeed, we have a tendency to leave others behind, and I think that’s unfortunate, and I certainly want to see a world where we’re all succeeding together, and I applaud Karen and her work, and I’m so glad that you were able to see her in action and to be there and be a part of that, because to be in a room where women of color and white women can have those honest conversations I think is so important, because we’ve–you know, I’m coming to realize for the first time that we grew up with two sets of rules, and we were both told that those sets of rules were what kept us safe, but they were also about how to be polite. And so what I grew up as, “This is how you go about the world and navigate being polite,” I’m only now coming to realize is harmful to other people, which is exactly the opposite of what I intend to be.

Kristina: Right. Oh, I understand that.

Amy: And it’s so devastating to find out that the things that you’ve been taught to get you to a certain endpoint are the opposite of what are gonna get you there, and so I’m so glad that we’re able to have these conversations and learn from each other and forgive each other for past transgressions and to really understand, “Hey, you know, I get that your heart’s in the right place, but you’re doing it all wrong.”

Kristina: Right. [laughs]

Amy: [laughs] And somebody’s there to listen to that and to accept it. [?]

Kristina: Yeah, it was awesome. It was just so awesome. I was really so glad that I was there. It was just like, “Oh, my gosh.” Incredible. Absolutely incredible.

Amy: That is wonderful. So I’m gonna go back just a little bit. Can you tell me about–if somebody wants to do work in the diversity and inclusion space, in the consulting space, in the training and development industry where you’ve spent so much time, how can they learn more about that? Where can they go for information?

Kristina: So a couple of different things. It used to be called the American Society for Training and Development. They’ve changed their acronym now to ATD, which is the American Talent Development Association I guess it is. So people can go and do some research on that. Definitely there’s all kinds of school programs now that offer training and development, organization improvement, organizational development. All of those are great forays into this area, but also, even though I had done all of this work in training and development for 15+ years, probably 20, I knew that I didn’t want to just jump out there and start doing diversity work. I really did some research and decided to go to the Institute for Diversity Certification. The Institute for Diversity Certification, they have–and there are other organizations, I just happened to like that particular organization. I went and studied with them. It was–at that time it was a three and a half day class and then you take a national exam, and then you also have to do a project, and the project was to be certified as a diversity professional. So there are other organizations that do that, but the Institute for Diversity Certification met my needs, and I really enjoyed the process because it takes you all the way through the history of where we started, where did this all start, where are we now, and they do a lot of ongoing workshops and seminars to keep us abreast of what’s happening currently in the field, and they’re constantly putting out articles and information that I find to be really, really timely and helpful. So I would say definitely reach out to one of those organizations. Now that same organization is doing online training, so you don’t–I had to actually go out to Indianapolis. [laughs] It was cool because I got to meet some people that now I can network with if I’m in a situation where I’m pondering. I can pick up the phone and call someone that I’ve made a connection with, but you can also do that training online now. I think that’s great.

Amy: And what about organizations? Are there any organizations that exist specifically to help people of color connect or feel a part of something bigger in the training and development industry? Because I think, for a lot of folks, if they don’t–they might be the only where they are and not realize that there’s this big world out there of people that can support and help them.

Kristina: So that’s a really good question, and there are a couple of things. Even if you wanted to just network with SHRM, the national organization of human resources professionals, there are lots of African-American leaders who are in those roles. So that’s another option. And like I said, the American Talent Development organization as well. And within those groups they have networking groups.

Amy: Ok, okay. So within the broader–there’s, like, a broader organization, and then there’s special interest groups or affinity groups within those larger professional associations?

Kristina: Yes, absolutely.

Amy: Excellent. Well, Kristina, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom and your insights today. This has been, from my perspective, a phenomenal conversation. I look forward to many more with you.

Kristina: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Amy. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing, and yes, I hope we get to chat again soon.

Amy: Thank you.

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