Foster an environment that allows open and honest conversations, and make sure there is a clear feedback loop, so everyone feel comfortable raising concerns. This is crucial. If you don’t have trust, you’ll never be able to have meaningful conversations that promote real 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 PJ Bain.
PJ Bain is CEO of PrimeRevenue, a global provider of supply chain finance solutions. As a lifelong software and technology entrepreneur, he has been involved in numerous firms in the roles of founder, executive, advisor and investor. He is also actively involved in Atlanta’s philanthropic community with a passion for helping underprivileged youth and their families.
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 am a lifelong resident of Atlanta (a city I love), a former Georgia Tech football player and graduate, and a proud husband and father of 2 (Grace, a rising senior at USC and Griffin, a rising junior at an Atlanta high school). I was raised with a strong sense of values — respect, hard work, integrity, humility, and a duty to help those who may not have the same opportunities as you. I saw those values put into practice when my father was killed in an accident when I was a teenager. The men in my life reached out and pulled me up, changing the trajectory of my life in a massive way. Without their leadership, mentoring and coaching, I would not be half the man I am today.
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?
I recently read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, an incredible book that does a great job of highlighting issues of systemic racism. It’s written in a way that is geared toward people who may not fully understand the concept of privilege or that they have it. It resonated with me because it facilitates conversations around race and social justice — and that’s important because you have to understand racism before you can begin dismantling the systems that create/enable it.
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 love quotes, but one of my favorites is by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
I was raised to be a fighter, so when I first heard this quote, it made me stop and think. I realized that going into opposite corners doesn’t move anyone forward. You have to find some common ground. In all aspects of my life, I aspire to be a leader. This means that it’s not enough to stand against hate — you have to be proactive and stand for love.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
My personal beliefs have built the foundation for who I am as a person and as a leader. My definition of personal, professional, and civic leadership is values-based. It’s based on the principal of loving and supporting one another — taking the time to invest in those around you and creating a culture where people can grow.
While I always try to keep values at the forefront of every personal and professional decision I make, recent events have altered my thoughts around leadership a lot. A leader has to put themselves in the position to take risks and possibly upset people. A true values-based leader has to be willing to put their neck on the line to stand up for what they believe in. Otherwise, you’re not convicted as a leader.
An example of me practicing this was when I was one of the early supporters of House Bill 426 (a Hate Crime Bill passed recently in Georgia). Given the tragic events over the past several years (or really, the past 400 years), I felt convicted to use my network and resources to promote actionable change — even though it may have been controversial to some. By my taking a stand, I emboldened others to sign, who then emboldened even more people to support the bill. I’m not saying that my own personal signature was the first or the most important by any means, but I do think that as a leader, by showing my support, I may have raised awareness or given others the motivation to also get behind a cause they feel passionate about. That, in my opinion, is true leadership.
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?
With everyone working remote, it’s easy to find yourself working almost 24/7, which can quickly and easily lead to burnout. To make sure I’m bringing my best self to work every day, I think it’s important to prioritize health and wellness, so I’ve really focused on making time for exercise and quality sleep.
During my workday, I try to make sure the sequence of what I’m doing makes sense. Walking out of a meeting and then going straight into something completely different causes emotional/mental whiplash, which creates stress. To combat this, I try to set up my schedule where meetings about similar themes or topics are grouped together on my calendar. And if I need time to prepare, I make sure to block off my calendar to allow for that.
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?
It’s hard to answer this question without framing my perspective. I’ve been lucky enough to spend time inside and outside of the U.S., as well as inside and outside of the South. These experiences have granted me the fortunate opportunity to develop relationships with a wide variety of people from different cultures, races, and backgrounds who are willing to share their experiences with me. A common theme I’ve seen is that a lot of society lives in an echo chamber. The majority of people they interact with share their same views, so a lot of people aren’t getting exposed to diversity of thought. It’s so easy to create categories of people instead of seeing them as human. If people would just get up and walk across the room to have a conversation with someone different than themselves, things would be really different. But that’s not cool — it’s not newsworthy and it doesn’t sell ads. Even more, social media only exacerbates the echo chamber. The algorithm is designed to bring you news and articles and videos that align with what you’ve already been consuming or searching, so the cycle continues.
You have to work consciously to break free of that echo chamber, so you create relationships and have names and faces and people you care about that are associated with that group. I can’t group people into “gay” or “black” or “transgender” because those are humans. They’re people I love and care about. There’s not enough breaking down of those walls and that’s led to a lot of polarization in our society.
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 serve on the Board responsible for governance, oversight and strategic direction for Cristo Rey Atlanta, a Jesuit High School that provides 100% scholarships to students who are incredibly full of potential but may not have access to the resources that other students do. The school provides a work-study program where teams of 4 students are employed, with each student working 1 day per week. I am passionate about giving these students opportunity, so I am personally involved in the mentorship and coaching.
I’m also involved in Project Light, an organization founded by Leadership Atlanta (one of the oldest sustained community leadership programs in the nation) alum committed to driving out hate and racism here in our own backyard. We advocate for projects and initiatives that promote equality for all, such as House Bill 426 (the Hate Crime Bill), which will enforce tougher penalties for hate crimes. Using our human capital, financial capital, and network capital, we are able to connect organizations with a common goal. For example, we are helping to connect a number of grassroots movements with more established organizations driving change, such as The King Center and the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. We’ve been particularly successful getting organizations that may not have the network or resources connected with large or governmental organizations, when they may not have otherwise been able to. At the end of the day, we’re really an enabler of initiatives and we’re trying to create a measuring stick for improvement around diversity, equity and inclusion.
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?
With COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a huge opportunity right now to focus on diversity and inclusion, and to reflect on yourself and your business. The receptiveness to having conversations around this topic is unlike anything I’ve seen in a long time, meaning people are interested in understanding and doing a better job. That’s softening the beach, so to speak, to having productive conversations about why diversity, especially in leadership, is so important.
PrimeRevenue has also used this time to reflect. That led us to form a Diversity and Inclusion Council of which I am serving as the Executive Sponsor. Diversity is one of our corporate values, so we’ve also made a conscious effort to make sure our definition of diversity is 2-dimensional, meaning we have both diversity of thought as well as diversity of race, culture, and so on. Because you really can’t have diversity of thought without diversity of culture, race, gender, background, etc. Especially in today’s global world, it’s crucial to have input and perspectives from a broad and diverse group. No good business leader wants everyone to have the same thoughts and ideas — otherwise, you’ll be stuck in that echo chamber I talked about before and you’re never going to innovate or solve problems.
We understand meaningful change doesn’t happen overnight, so we’re establishing short-term, mid-term and long-term goals to help us achieve a more diverse and inclusive workplace. The first step the Council is taking is mandated unconscious bias training for all leadership as part of three core focuses: fostering a culture of inclusion that allows everyone to bring their full self to work; talent attraction, retention and development of a diverse workforce; and further supporting our underrepresented and underserved communities in the cities where we have offices.
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.
From a business perspective, I would say the five steps are:
- Foster an environment that allows open and honest conversations, and make sure there is a clear feedback loop, so everyone feel comfortable raising concerns. This is crucial. If you don’t have trust, you’ll never be able to have meaningful conversations that promote real change.
- Assess your current state of diversity, inclusion, and equity. It’s easy to talk the talk, but does your workplace reflect these values? If not, why? PrimeRevenue recently did this — and we found that there is always room for improvement. The Diversity and Inclusion Council was born out of this assessment.
- Create objective hiring and promotion criteria to ensure accountability in retention and promotion of a global workforce. This is crucial to PrimeRevenue as a global company. We can’t snap our fingers and change the makeup of our employee base or Board, but we can put measures in place that ensure we’re pulling from a diverse hiring pool and championing diversity in our hiring process.
- Mandate diversity and bias training for leadership, at a minimum. Based on feedback from the Diversity and Inclusion Council, we found this to be a key component to further promoting a respectful and diverse workplace.
- Identify new ways to serve your community or communities with an emphasis on undeserved and underrepresented populations. An example of this for us is Cristo Rey Atlanta, the Jesuit High School I mentioned earlier in this interview, for which I am a Board member.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
It’s difficult at times, but yes, I am optimistic. I have to be, because without hope, you can’t be productive, and you can’t make change. From a macro perspective, it’s easy to be discouraged with all the discord between our leaders on every level. But what truly inspires me is the grassroots movements on the micro level. We need leadership, and people in our communities are stepping up to bring a call to action. What’s ahead of us is very real, emotional work, personally and professionally. But we are all capable — and responsible — for being stewards of change. And the work that I’m seeing on an individual level and within the community is what keeps me optimistic about the future.
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. 🙂
I’d like to talk to Dan Smith. Born in Virginia and currently living in Washington, Dan is one of the few living Americans whose parents were slaves. He has the perspective of time — he has seen and lived through everything from Jim Crow to the civil rights movement to the election of our nation’s first black president. Unlike many, he has experienced first-hand the challenges and triumphs America has been through. I’d like to talk to him about his experience and how, when it seems like the world is lost beyond recovery, he retains hope.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!