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Ashlea Elliott: “Never take a development opportunity away from someone else”

Never take a development opportunity away from someone else. — When you recruit new people to your team, make a commitment to really invest in helping that person learn how to seek out opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Encourage them to take initiative, to practice and master new skills, and remind them often that your goal […]

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Never take a development opportunity away from someone else. — When you recruit new people to your team, make a commitment to really invest in helping that person learn how to seek out opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Encourage them to take initiative, to practice and master new skills, and remind them often that your goal is to help to prepare them to replace you.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ashlea Elliott.

Ashlea Elliott is a globally recognized public speaker, trainer, coalition builder, inclusion strategist, and thought-leader in the fields of human rights, inclusion, and peace. As the CEO of Ashlea Elliott Consulting, she drives transformative inclusion innovation at the ecosystem level to accelerate the radical changes needed to create a world that is just, equitable, and safe.

She has trained tens of thousands of leaders across more than 166 countries on human rights, equity, and inclusion, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, reducing gender-based violence, and how every person can learn inclusive leadership skills and take action to eliminate structural and cultural violence.

All of her curricula are rooted in systems thinking, co-design, inclusion, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and intersectional gender lenses, and provide leaders with actionable resources to apply what they have learned in their communities and organizations to drive sustainable change.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

There is a really powerful quote that I think will help answer this question: “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern.” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Since I was in kindergarten, my entire life has been committed to creating a world that is more inclusive, just, and free from violence. Violence, injustice, and exclusion have played a critical role in my life. I am intimately familiar with how it feels to have people hate you for being born, to have weapons put in your face because of your identity, to feel unsafe wherever you go, and the long-term health outcomes of these experiences. I have advocated for the human rights for women and the LGBTQ for 30 years, and grieved and raged and protested the sexual assaults, suicides, and homicides of friends and role models. And I have been in the room when the legal and legislative systems have denied my human rights and failed to protect people I love from known harms, resulting in their abuse and death.

To get where I have been to where I am, I learned how to learn everything I could across many disciplines to understand what would be necessary to not only reduce inequalities, exclusions, and violence — but how to dissolve them by influencing powerful people to change their attitudes and beliefs, and to accept the rights of others even when they firmly disagree with them.

Along the way, I have been doing ethnographic research to understand the experiences others have had, worked in different roles and industries across to learn to identify where invisible barriers and limits for certain groups were causing harm, developed my public speaking skills to become a persuasive speaker, and built relationships with people around the planet who opened doors for me to compel leaders to change their beliefs and policies to create safe, inclusive, and just enterprises and organizations. I’ll always do this work.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Right now in the United States, there are more than 30,000 open job postings for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion roles. Our society is in an historic moment of collective awakening that our systems and structures are broken, and inside each of the 30,000 businesses leaders and shareholders are considering how they can respond to increasing pressures and demands from their stakeholders, customers, and partners for advancing DEI inside their organizations.

Unfortunately, there is a trifecta of DEI doom happening:

  1. The current DEI approaches that are available are designed to fail and actually increase discrimination towards employees from historically underrepresented communities in the workplace.
  2. Due to the economic burdens of Covid 19 businesses are searching for the most-cost effective solutions instead of the most effective solutions. Many have asked consultants to deliver a one-time short workshop, asked DEI leaders to work for free, or tried to eliminate costs by asking employees from diverse backgrounds to lead this work in their organization without pay.
  3. The business that have been successful in hiring DEI talent either move forward with solutions that are designed to fail or fire DEI leaders who bring up concerns about racism, sexual harassment, and discrimination and push for anything more than incremental change.

All of this gives the businesses sector the most potential for disruptive breakthrough exponential innovation to transform our inequitable society into a more equitable and inclusive one. The Strategic Inclusion Consulting that I do and the Elliott Inclusion Incubator and Accelerator that I have built engage business leaders and all of their employees to drive fundamental change at scale. They are designed to drive changes in attitudes about what inclusion is and who benefits, to provide leaders with the skills to eliminate the inequities in their policies, processes, systems, and supply chains. My solutions provide the reimagined tools, collective action plans, and activities roadmap to get from the current reality to the future state of equity that I have delivered and tested around the world.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I love this question, I love bloopers and laughing at myself when bloopers happen and do have a story for you!

During my first global partnership summit at the United Nations I met about 400 delegates from around the world representing their countries in conversations about advancing gender equality. I have a really strong memory for names and faces, so I thought I could remember each person and where they were from.

During the summit, the Executive Director of Nothing But Nets, an organization hosted by the United Nations foundation that is devoted to ending malaria sat next to me before we delivered back to back speeches. During her speech, she mentioned that Paraguay had recently been successful in eliminating malaria.

At this time, I had been volunteering with Nothing But Nets for years, and was a super supporter, but did not know the Executive Director well. I wanted to make a good impression and remembered that I had met the presidential delegate from Paraguay at the summit and decided it would be great to introduce the two to celebrate the milestone of malaria elimination!

The Executive Director had a lot of high-level meetings that day, but I was able to convince her to say she’d come back to the hotel for the introduction. I thought this was great news!

I went to the delegate that I had met earlier in the day and asked her to allow me to create the opportunity for her to meet the Executive Director and to celebrate defeating malaria, and to have a photo opp, and let her know that we weren’t sure when the Executive Director would be back. We would have to wait in the lobby. The delegate told me that she had plans with other presidential delegates in NYC, but I persisted in asking her to wait with me. She was surprised to learn that her country had had a malaria problem but was familiar with the organization, so she said yes.

While we were waiting, I invited my colleague, the presidential delegate from Niger a country with endemic malaria and whose younger son currently had malaria, to sit and wait with us. We were focused on translating our conversation about experiences and advocacy for malaria interventions in Latin America and West Africa across French, Spanish, and English.

Miraculously, after only a few hours, the Executive Director made it back to speak with us! First I introduced the delegate from Niger, things were going smoothly.

Then I introduced the delegate from Paraguay. Except. She was representing the country of Panama, not Paraguay. I had made a major global leadership mistake. The reason the delegate had been so surprised that her country had just eliminated malaria was because the country didn’t have a problem with malaria. She had sat with us in a hotel lobby instead of using her time for powerful networking because I got her name right, but her country wrong.

I couldn’t believe that my career in international diplomacy might end before it began. Luckily, I apologized and all three of them were wonderful and gracious, and the conversation was full of passionate support for new international partnerships for Panama to help advocate for malaria in areas in Latin America and West Africa that need their help. All three of them are still close friends to this day!

Hope you got a giggle out of that!

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

The people who have provided me with the most valuable mentorship in my career have been the communities of color who have let me deep into their lived experiences with exclusions and inequities. It took a lot of risk, time, trust, and faith on their part to express what they were going through with me.

Each person invested their time to explain to me how the exclusions and barriers that they face are interconnected and mutually reinforcing. They provided years of invaluable mentorship and guidance, and also tested and poked holes in each of the ideas and solutions that I pitched to them to create sustainable change until I was able to develop today’s multi-stage, multi-level solutions.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

This is a poignant moment in history to be asking this question. The global community is currently in a super shock in which simultaneous health, economic, social, and climate crises are eroding the illusions we have had that any of our structures and systems are equitable. Over and over we are having a collective awakening: rising inequities and injustices are not malfunctions of our structures and systems, but their intended outcomes.

The world is changing so rapidly with the effects of these super shocks and technology that I don’t think that very many structures or systems will make it through 2030 without being disrupted. We are heading towards a future where companies will need to come to terms with the limits of the planet, their limits to growth, and the negative externalities on society that their businesses have caused. Innovators like myself are designing solutions for a future as it is emerging and working backwards from that to design the roadmap to get from here to there.

I anticipate that the next generation of disruptive innovation will take place in tandem with breakthrough innovations as markets push for exponential changes to correct course from where we are now.

With this frame, disruptions would be good if they helped industries to include segments of society that have previously been left out or undervalued who can be part of a collective push for sustainability.

Disruptions would be negative if they were designed to help companies and individuals who resist the realities of their limits to growth, that continue to use extractive approaches that damage the earth and increase poverty or have negative externalities. If the disruption helped a company to evade their responsibilities to human rights, or to be unethical in their products, or process it would be negative.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Never take a development opportunity away from someone else.

When you recruit new people to your team, make a commitment to really invest in helping that person learn how to seek out opportunities to develop their leadership skills. Encourage them to take initiative, to practice and master new skills, and remind them often that your goal is to help to prepare them to replace you.

Once you get to a point in leading a team where you have mastery of a skill or task, and it becomes mundane, look for another person who has not yet had the opportunity to do what you get to do all the time. Know the talent on your teams, which person has not yet had the opportunity to learn how to run a meeting, set an agenda, manage the flow of the meeting, or to stay on task and on time. Ask them if they would like to run the next meeting or to take over that part of your role. There doesn’t need to be a job opening to create opportunities. Open up airtime for someone else, and mentor them to do the same when they are ready. This is how I got my first role on a Board of Directors, love passing it on.

Spend time doing things you know you are not good at and embrace it.

I love this advice so much! For the most part, my life is spent mentally preparing for audiences full of people to ask me questions about any number of things and being ready to respond quickly with the right answer. It’s a mental jungle gym, so I need help getting out of my head and doing something I’m rubbish at and can’t win.

My release of choice is playing indoor putt-putt — because I am truly terrible at putt-putt! At first, my wife and friends were worried when we would play because I am super competitive and it would take me 12 shots to sink the hole when it only took them 4, but I really love it! It is hilarious how bad I am; I have no idea why my game hasn’t improved over time and wouldn’t want to change it. I like celebrating when my friends and family get holes in one and when they win the game!

You have to have inner peace to build peace.

People get very upset when they are put in a room and asked to talk about their beliefs about inequalities, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other forms of exclusion and/or injustice. Some are disgusted by the idea of equal human rights and dignity for all people and upset that they are being asked to see others as equals. Others are upset because their rights aren’t being upheld, they are not able to access their basic needs, or they are facing unjust and unsafe conditions.

No matter how upset someone else becomes, it is my job to maintain an internal state of calmness and impartiality. If you try to pretend to be neutral on the outside while secretly seething, the energy of the room changes and you will lose control over the environment. This is especially important when for DEI work because negative and punitive approaches to DEI increase discrimination and harm to communities of color and women. If people sense that you are blaming, shaming, or judging them you risk not only failing, but making environments more discriminatory and unsafe, which you can see in the spike in retaliation cases that the EEOC is seeing.

It takes a lot of practice to do this, but it is the golden rule.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I am about to disrupt the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion market with a breakthrough inclusion innovation to accelerate fundamental change in the market at scale. I have been designing and testing this portfolio of courses for the past two years and working on the business model to ensure more people and companies have access to DEI solutions. There are currently tens of thousands of job openings for DEI professionals, but not enough qualified professionals to fill those roles. I am looking forward to helping those companies who haven’t been able to hire their own DEI practitioner.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Yes! I remember exactly what seat I was sitting in and who I was with at the University of Washington when I heard Dr. Amy Smith the Founding Director of the D-Lab at MIT talk about the importance of co-design and user-led design when developing interventions for international development. It was absolutely an aha moment.

Dr. Smith’s lecture was focused on reframing our mindsets about the role of the end users of innovations for development. The typical approach of funding solutions for remote and least-resourced environments has been to direct funding to projects that would bring ideas, designs, and materials from more resourced countries into the environment, and to train the local users how to install and maintain the solution. Like a transplant. Once the project funding was complete, the solution often broke when exposed to environmental elements (rain or drought) or became unusable if it relied on resources that are intermittent (electricity).

Next, Dr. Smith then walked us through user centered design processes and how these approaches changed the design of solutions for these user groups and environments. She had seen increases in efforts to consult with local users to get a deeper understanding of the problems that they were encountering, but their role was still that of a beneficiary of the product or service. External ideas were still being brought into the local environment. And then she shared how and why these products ultimately break or fail.

Finally, Dr. Smith described the work that she had been doing at MIT’s D Lab to push forward user-led design, which transforms the role of the local users from beneficiaries into co-creators. The focus is on increasing the human capital of local talent and to provide them with the agency and power to build solutions using local intelligence and materials that they can be sustained by local talent. The role of the external partner is to demonstrate different ways that local materials can be used to build the human capital of the user so that they can direct the design of the solution.

Dr. Smith’s lecture had a profound influence on my work to reduce inequalities and advance inclusion and is integrated into the Elliott Inclusion Incubator and Accelerator. Each year, companies spend $8 billion dollars on DEI approaches that perpetuate the mindset that communities of color and underrepresented talent are beneficiaries of programs and services, and ultimately fail.

The Elliott Inclusion Incubator and Accelerator takes a user-led and co-creation approach where the goal is to build inclusive leadership across the business ecosystem — leveling up leaders at every level and democratizes agency and decision-making power for a larger number of people from a wider variety of backgrounds.

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

“Stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.” — Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

I really loved Quiet and felt like Susan Cain was talking directly to me throughout her book. Her advice about recognizing your true nature and working in environments and at times of the day when you felt the most energized was critical in launching my company.

It helped me to both be really mindful about the places and spaces where I had the most success reaching flow states, which for me is in really quiet spaces like libraries where I could focus without interruption for hours. I really enjoy bringing a pile of books into my office and reading them all simultaneously to look for new connections to complex problems that I work on, and I prefer deep deliberate learning before and after group strategy sessions.

Before reading Quet, I knew that I was an introvert and reflective kinesthetic learner, but I hadn’t considered the times of day that I have the most energy to work and when I get restless. I experimented with my work hours and went from working 9:00 am -7:00 pm towards a split schedule where I worked in the morning, then spent time outside in my garden or taking a walk before heading back to work until midnight. This turned out to be a game changer! I live in the Pacific Northwest which has limited light and sunny days most of the year — when working traditional hours, it would be dark when I woke up, and dark again before I stopped working, I would completely miss the daylight hours. The split schedule let me get outside when it is bright, and I found out that I have my best ideas during the break, and then can come back and finish them in the evening working hours. Finding this fit really energizes me and helps motivate me to work more efficiently so that I can get outside.

Keeping the recommendation to ‘stay true to my own nature’ at top of mind reminded me that I had a choice. I started my own company, which made it possible for me to travel and work remotely from anywhere in the world, I get to think deeply and do work that I am passionate about, and directly influence the diversity and inclusion practices and policies of the companies that have been overlooking talented people. Being a CEO and this work is a perfect fit, I jump out of bed each morning to start working.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

There are increasing demands for companies to seek out breakthrough and disruptive innovations that will help them survive the rapid changes taking place today and the future of business as it emerges. To be successful, companies will need the brightest people from the widest variety of backgrounds to collaborate and to trust each other enough to share ideas and develop solutions.

However, the surging inequities and injustices of our current reality have been chiseling away at the trust, social capital, and cooperation needed for businesses to operate. When companies avoid investing in a strategic inclusion and equity roadmap, or invest in approaches that are designed to fail, they are contributing to the challenges they will face in the future.

There is a solution that can help, which is a skill that everyone can learn — and it is inclusive leadership. Investing in the growth and development of the inclusive leadership capacities of all employees, inviting and appreciating employees to raise concerns about barriers, and setting up the mechanisms to digest and respond to their feedback will make companies and business ecosystems stronger and more resilient. Businesses need to invest in inclusive leadership please connect with me on LinkedIn or contact me to learn more information about how to get started with the Elliott Inclusion Incubator and Accelerator.

How can our readers follow you online?

Visit my website and sign up for updates: www.ashleaelliott.com

Please connect with me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashleaelliott/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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