Be mindful of your voice. Be mindful of your vote. Be mindful about where and how you spend your money. The consumer has incredible power to create change.
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 Chely Wright.
Chely Wright is the Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Officer of Unispace, a global strategy, design and construction firm, specializing in modern workspaces. She has a wealth of experience working with global businesses, learning institutions and non-profit organizations to create inclusive environments, with a professional background that fuses advocacy, business, real estate and communications. For Unispace, Chely identifies and utilizes minority-owned businesses across the entire supply chain, driving outreach to support local non-profits, community organizations and advocacy groups across each market the firm serves.
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?
I grew up in a little farming community in Kansas. I’m the youngest of three kids whose parents were wildly creative when it came to stretching their limited resources. As a result, we learned a lot of valuable life skills which embedded in each of us the ability to problem-solve and a strong inclination toward innovation and entrepreneurship.
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?
To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ll never forget how I felt when I read it for the first time. I saw myself in multiple characters in the book, and that was a new experience for me as a reader. It really resonated that the best of us and the worst of us can often be found co-mingling in our ranks.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
I’m not sure it would be considered a Life Lesson Quote, but my parents drilled the following advice into their children: “Plan your work and work your plan.” Whether it was installing a fence on the back pasture, pouring a concrete foundation or figuring out how to make it in the music business, they believed very much in the value of developing and deploying smart strategy.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I’ve always been mindful that “Leadership” is a two-sided coin. When it’s good, it can take a team where they want and need to go. When it’s not good, it can take a team pretty far off course. I’ve always enjoyed the opportunities I’ve had to be in leadership positions. That said, a huge part of my development came from experiences I’ve had while being led by great leaders. Good leadership is rooted in trust, transparency and accountability.
Also, my brother (a great leader) shared with me one of his philosophies when asking his teams to perform tasks. “Chely, ask yourself if the tasks are S.M.A.R.T.” Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Time-bound. I consider my brother’s philosophy very often.
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?
For me, preparedness is key. I think I have an internal measuring system — like a bank of gauges, I suppose, that asks a few key questions:
A) Have I done the work required?
B) Do I understand my role in the event — am I teacher, a learner or both?
C) Is there a trust-building component?
If I can answer YES to all of those questions, then I am probably adequately prepared, and stresses are mitigated.
Also, as it pertains to C) Is there a trust-building component? — even in the most difficult of situations/meetings/talks/decisions, there likely exists an opportunity to build trust.
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?
Boiling point is a great way to characterize it. I love metaphors, analogies and similes which reference water. (My wife pointed out to me years ago that a lot of the songs I’ve written are about water. She’s right.)
The United States has a long, shameful history of denying access and opportunity to certain populations. Sometimes those denials are active, sometimes they’re passive. Sometimes they’re explicit and sometimes they’re implicit, but what they are every time… is damaging and unjust.
In recent years, we’ve seen up-close some of the injustices many Americans are experiencing. Cellphone cameras, live stream platforms and social media have played a significant role in telling the stories that the oppressed and the maligned have been trying to tell for generations. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but America, for the most part, hasn’t been very good at critical listening.
So, when an event like COVID happens, it scales up the inequities and the divisions. And that scaling up widens the already sizeable chasm between those with resources and opportunity and those without. Hence, the boiling point.
The good news is that these unsavory truths that sort of define America right now have finally permeated the conscience of our nation in a profound way. In addition to so many folks being compelled to stand up for others because it’s the right and moral thing to do, there seems to be an awakening among us that systemic disenfranchisement of people is not only dangerous and harmful to those being left out and oppressed, but that it negatively impacts all of us.
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?
I’ve been lucky to work in corporate spaces, with non-profits, learning institutions, faith communities and beyond to advance DE&I initiatives. At the heart of who I am is a storyteller and I believe that storytelling is the connective tissue of humankind. I’ve witnessed the powerful progress that can be made when people feel safe to be their authentic selves — in classrooms, in conference rooms, on factory floors and beyond. It’s an act of courage to be yourself and there’s strong case to be made that learning about and growing into a person who celebrates others’ differences is an act of courage as well.
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?
Representation matters. People need to see themselves reflected in positions of power and leadership. They just do. There are a thousand data points on why this this important in business, but I’m convinced it comes down to trust. (I know, I know… I invoke this word a lot.) I’m not saying it’s reasonable to trust someone in a position of power exclusively because they’re “like you.” I come at it from a different angle. I believe it’s more about the trust-capital being established from the top down. When and if the most powerful in an organization strive to gain the trust of the teams they lead, they should — with intention — leverage that power to convene diverse executive teams. It matters. And at the end of the day, despite the many ways one would like to explain away or spin the reasons why their team isn’t yet diverse, there’s a doctrine of law that I often cite: Res ipsa loquitur. It means, “The thing speaks for itself.” And it does.
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.
- Education is key. There’s a lot to learn. Utilize available resources. There are many agencies, councils and organizations dedicated to informing us all about disenfranchised and underrepresented groups. Be curious. Get educated.
- Each of us should establish our own personal Mission Statement. Know your “why” and then communicate it widely. You are a walking, talking billboard for the things that matter to you.
- Be mindful of your voice. Be mindful of your vote. Be mindful about where and how you spend your money. The consumer has incredible power to create change. I recently had a discussion with a woman in business named Wendy Davidson. She’s done great things for DE&I during her esteemed career with several high-profile companies. Wendy and I were having a conversation about how influential the public can be when it comes to companies making DE&I a business imperative. Wendy said something to me that really resonated, “The consumer actually owns our brand. It’s up to us to respond to what they’re telling us they want.” I asked Wendy if I could make a bumper sticker of that and she said yes. (Thanks Wendy!)
- Tell your story. Encourage and facilitate opportunities for others to tell stories too.
- Engage young people. Be a mentor and find ways to create opportunities for our youth who are part of historically underserved populations.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I am an optimistic person by nature. When I think about your question and whether or not it can eventually be resolved, I’m reminded of something my mother said to me when I was about 12 years old. For days, I’d procrastinated on a specific chore I didn’t want to do. She said, “Your room is not going to clean itself.” That sentiment seems pretty applicable to this discussion.
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. 🙂
Shonda Rhimes. She is such a prolific writer. I’d love to share a meal with her. That’d be cool.
How can our readers follow you online?
I am on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I’m very findable.