Sumindi Peiris of Time Out Group: “Identify and acknowledge unconscious bias”

Identify and acknowledge unconscious bias — Also called implicit bias is the shortcut our brain takes outside of our control and awareness. We must be conscious of this type of thinking, and we must surround ourselves with those who will help by calling it out. We need to make ourselves open and vulnerable. As part of our […]

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Identify and acknowledge unconscious bias — Also called implicit bias is the shortcut our brain takes outside of our control and awareness. We must be conscious of this type of thinking, and we must surround ourselves with those who will help by calling it out. We need to make ourselves open and vulnerable.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Sumindi Peiris.

Sumindi Peiris brings over 20 years of experience to her role as Global CMO of Time Out Group, an international media and leisure brand. As the company’s first Group CMO, Sumindi leads branding and communications efforts for Time Out Media and Time Out Market with a passion for purpose driven marketing. Sumindi’s expertise in lifestyle brand management is centered around developing marketing ecosystems and high performing teams that drive value. She is known for producing integrated campaigns that deliver a globally aligned identity and customer experience for iconic Luxury, Lifestyle and CPG brands worldwide. Recognized for her work in top media publications across the globe, such as Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg, Sumindi is a true marketing innovator, brand developer and expert data-mining specialist.

Previously, Sumindi was the Vice President of Global Marketing for the Luxury and Lifestyle Brands at Hilton Worldwide. Prior to Hilton, she was the Global Vice President of Johnnie Walker Reserve (Luxury Portfolio) at Diageo and held leadership roles at LVMH, Bacardi and Unilever.

Sumindi holds a certificate in Digital Marketing & Social Media Analytics from MIT Sloan School of Management Executive Program, a Digital Luxury Capabilities certificate from INSEAD Executive Program in Fontainebleau, France as well as a BA in International Business Management from Franklin University Switzerland and an International MBA from Long Island University, Lugano, Switzerland & C.W. Post NY campuses.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Coming from a diplomatic family, I grew up admiring and celebrating the diversity of the world — its people, cultures and beliefs. My parents gave me the gift of world travel, which helped me learn early on that no matter how different we are, we all still share common human truths that unite us. As a young child, summers entailed a visit to Sri Lanka to see family. During the long journey back and forth, we would pick key wonders of the world to visit. It was my older sister, Aloka’s idea. She would do the research and get my father on board. My father’s work had many ups and downs. Through the good and bad times, he taught me that the future can hold amazing things. He was adamant on never letting adversities hold you back. Everything has an end, bad things, but also the good. This foundation shaped me profoundly and set me on the path to live and work globally. My purpose became to do work that connects and brings joy to people around the world — no matter the industry. My life experiences prepared me for this perfect role at Time Out Group. I get to witness, read and experience the essence and soul of all the cities that we represent.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

One book that comes to mind immediately is Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung? by Ajahn Brahm. It is a collection of short, funny stories that have great life lessons and tips. Hopefully, that helps to explain the title. He has a few books, and I have read them all with my son. This is why it is so significant to me. As a working mother who travels a lot, bedtime reading was very special. Since I was not always around, I had to find creative ways to teach my son our values. I wanted to teach him why he was special and how he could navigate life. These books helped me do just that. My son was in elementary school when I started reading these books. He listened attentively to everything that I had to say (boy, I miss those days!). The stories have deep meaning and are philosophical, but they are written very simply and with humor so anyone can grasp it. Here are two stories that I would like to share. One, Ajahn Brahm talked about how he and other fellow monks built a monastery in the jungle of Thailand all by themselves. None of them had ever built anything in their lives before. It was a great achievement. However, he mentioned that there was one wall with about 3 bricks that were not perfectly aligned. When he would do the monastery tour, he would stop at this wall and point out their error. One day, someone had stopped him and asked that he not look at the three bricks but the whole building; this was the true achievement. We make this mistake every day, we accomplish great things and get distracted by the small things that are really insignificant in comparison to the big picture. As leaders, it is also important to be conscious and recognize the achievements and efforts towards the bigger goals versus the mishaps that should be viewed as teaching/learning moments. The second is one of my favorites. We all experience a racing mind. Sometimes there are things that we just can’t let go and keep dwelling on when we really need to move on. Well, Ajahn Brahm gave a tip for moments like these. He said sometimes you simply need to treat things for what they are. His advice is to take toilet paper and write down what you need to get rid of with a brown pen on the toilet paper and then flush it down the toilet. So simple, yet effective.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” As humans, emotions play a big role in our behavior. From the people we choose to be in our lives to the brands that we adopt, they all make us feel a certain way. I am where I am, not because I wanted to be a marketer, but because I wanted to build meaningful brands; I wanted to connect people to the brands and bring them joy. Brands can be people, things or destinations. What separates brands are not simply the physical or functional attributes, but the emotional aspect. I take this into serious consideration when I think about the brands I want to work on. I joined Time Out Group because, as a brand, Time Out evokes people’s passions and makes lasting connections — with its cities, its people and its culture.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the art of inspiring and motivating people to act toward achieving a common objective. I have had the fortune of working for some great leaders. Some key common characteristics I learned from them are to set a clear vision, be empathetic, be self-aware, led by example, demonstrate integrity, empower others, make the tough decisions and recognize success. Our Time Out Media team has been spearheading efforts since the beginning of Covid to support and bring awareness to local small businesses that are hurting through a campaign called Love Local. I had shared with the teams that we need to leverage those efforts by finding a way to utilize our physical space at Time Out Market, because as Time Out, it’s our mission now to use all our resources to help our cities bounce back. Now Time Out Market is all about featuring local notable chefs and restaurateurs. As a result of the pandemic, we only had some of our concessionaires return when we reopened late summer. Some wanted to focus on their brick and mortar locations, while we also wanted to follow social distancing regulations by not having all the kiosks occupied. Still, we had some extra space. Our GM, Scott from Time Out Market New York came to me with the idea to help our neighbors across the Brooklyn Bridge in Chinatown. Scott is also a chef by trade and knew of the struggling businesses there. I called up my friend Jeff, co-founder of Admerasia, a multicultural agency that has deep roots helping Chinatown businesses to say let’s work together. In a matter of weeks our teams got together and created a pop-up called Taste of Chinatown at Time Out Market New York which will launch the weekend of December 5th. Through the combined efforts of our teams we were able to mobilize quickly. Scott found the perfect spot in the Market for the pop-up, while the Admerasia and Time Out editorial teams collaborated with the Chinatown community to select a great combination of local Chinatown favorites. Amanda on my PR team and Rocky, my activation guru, all worked together to make it happen and I couldn’t be prouder.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Meditation is my stress reliever. About 7 years ago, one of my managers turned me to Headspace. Growing up, I learned about meditation from a cultural standpoint, but never really understood it. This simple app got me to really embrace meditation. To understand that even 5 minutes a day of meditation can be beneficial. Little by little, I expanded my learning by going beyond the App to real life experts. I joined live mediation sessions that forced me to set time aside for longer sessions. I began to really see the beneficial impact. I became more patient; I listened more and best of all, I noticed I was happier, not letting the little things bother me. With that, I became a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, colleague and friend. I am terrible with physical exercise, but one thing I don’t miss is my mental exercise, meditation. I don’t react to negative things like I did before. When the pandemic hit and we were all in lockdown, I feel I managed it much better than others, and I accredit that to meditation. During lockdown, I shared my secret to survival with my colleagues and team.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Propaganda. The unknown and fear simply brings the worst out in people. Conscious and unconscious bias brought on by fear or the feeling of needing to protect oneself/family/culture/values have exponentially surfaced what has been around for a long time. The divisive political climate gave people permission to express it and in the worst possible ways. At the same time, it also created a platform for the country and the world to speak out against the injustice. People took to the streets across the globe to speak out against inequality. They brought solidarity around equity, inclusion and to celebrate diversity. Privately and professionally, people started having conversations openly about the issue and started taking steps to consciously address the problem head on. Organizations from small private companies to large public corporations put it on the top of their company agenda to address. Time Out, in its 52 years has always been a big supporter of celebrating the diversity of its cities. We approached all content coverage with equality and inclusion in mind. It’s in our DNA and something our late-founder, Tony Elliott was very passionate about. As executive leadership, we paused to look inside our organization and question whether we are a reflection of our cities. Ultimately, we questioned how we can do better. We all agreed we need to be a part of the solution. From there, we developed a plan and set it in motion.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

As I mentioned above, we identified a few things we could do immediately at Time Out. One, we went into blind candidate reviews for job openings. Our hiring managers no longer see the names or have any reference to the background of the candidate when resumes are being reviewed. Only the experience section is now shared. We also put into action a global diversity and inclusion course for all employees. We knew that we needed to bring it to the forefront and make it a conscious effort to help people identify potential unconscious biases and prejudices that they weren’t aware of. We created a platform for everyone to speak openly and comfortably. Furthermore, we are taking a deeper look and reviewing our mission, vision and values. This exercise is a process, but one thing I can say is, from an emotional perspective, we are very aligned. However, we needed a common language to articulate it.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

There has been a lot of research proving the benefits of having a diverse executive team. I believe one McKinsey report shared that organizations with diverse executive leadership delivered greater financial returns. In fact, they performed above their industry means. Diverse teams are more innovative and offer different points of view. Having many different perspectives in the same room fuels thoughtful debates, resulting in new ideas and better business decisions. Also, worth mentioning, diversity increases employee engagement and builds a better reputation.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Listen — Pay attention to all the voices that represent the community. Hear the full story.

Educate — we all have our own biases, beliefs and stereotypes. To overcome this, we need to recognize, reflect and be open to learning. It is okay to be challenged and uncomfortable.

Representation matters -There needs to be diverse representation in the organization, including the C- suite. It’s important to show that no matter the background, there is opportunity to grow and lead. Young talent from diverse backgrounds want to see role models that look like them.

Identify and acknowledge unconscious bias — Also called implicit bias is the shortcut our brain takes outside of our control and awareness. We must be conscious of this type of thinking, and we must surround ourselves with those who will help by calling it out. We need to make ourselves open and vulnerable.

Thoughtful language — Misguided use of language can lead to misunderstanding and hurt. It doesn’t cost anything to be inclusive and to be kind to each other.

Our teams at Time Out continuously seek new opportunities to be better citizens and help our communities. For example, we have a campaign called Love Local specifically geared toward supporting communities in need. Most recently, we published Time Out London in partnership with Google to support Black-owned business in the capital bounce back. Time Out Market New York is supporting Chinatown, an area of New York City that has suffered from financial hardship with the decline in business, visitors and rise in xenophobia during the Pandemic. The Market is helping support local Chinatown restaurants by lending our platform and space for a weekend pop-up. These are two examples of many that Time Out has been celebrating and advocating change within our cities.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I believe in the inherent good in people. So yes, I am optimistic that as a society we can come together and find our common beliefs and values to overcome where we are today. It will be a journey, but I have faith that we can do it. It is our duty as leaders within brands to continue promoting change and representing everyone within our teams, our campaign messages, our content and more, to ensure everyone is included and represented within society.

Because of the pandemic, we have all been able to stop, listen and consider the problems surrounding us within our communities and we’re in a mindset of wanting to change, and finding a solution to the problems we face; whether that’s promoting better EDI, sustainability, climate change prevention efforts, etc. We are all banding together for the greater good. We must not let these conversations die once the world goes back to ‘normal’.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Michelle Obama. She is an inspiration to many women, and I think I would have an amazing conversation about the future with her. Specifically, I would love to talk with her about how we can work together to overcome this division in this country. She preaches positivity: “When they go low, we go high.”

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me on my personal LinkedIn or follow Time Out Group on LinkedIn and Twitter to discover all the incredible work we do.

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