Develop an insatiable appetite for the rich, colorful experiences of others. Those stories and experiences can become the foundation of a decision, relationship or disruptive thought you have in the future.
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 Laurel Rossi.
Laurel Rossi started Creative Spirit US in 2017, the first organization to match those with intellectual developmental and learning disabilities with the best companies in the world — unemployed at an astounding 85%. Laurel has a long history of nonprofit leadership serving underserved communities dating back to her board work for Wellspring House, the Williams Syndrome Association and professional organizations like the Advertising Club of New York where she also served as board chair. Laurel is a career marketer and is a sought-after speaker about diversity and inclusion in the advertising and marketing communities. Laurel lives in Bedford, New York with her husband Joseph and her daughter Mia who has Williams syndrome, a rare condition that affects 1 in 10,000 people — her constant inspiration for demanding equity and inclusion for those with intellectual disabilities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Laurel! 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 mixed family. Everyone was white and mostly Italian but in different stages of socio-economic progress. My dad served in the military. With only a few years of college, the combination of EQ and military discipline turned out to be his superpower. He was a family business owner and a successful leader. His immigrant upbringing produced a family of voracious readers, collaborators and dreamers. He often discussed business matters with his first-generation aunts who went to college and became high-level execs at Fortune 100 companies. On the flip side, my mom is college educated and worked at a prestigious Wall Street law firm. My maternal grandparents, while not immigrants, grew up in immigrant households with little-to-no English spoken.
My upbringing was a rich history of western European culture and striving for the American Dream. I lived in Park Slope in Brooklyn, and to this day, where my mom still lives. The neighborhood was a mix of every culture and every socio-economic class. The gentrification of my family and my growing-up-neighborhood helped to shape who I am today. My all-girls catholic high school experience provided a strong lesson in what “the power of a pack” of women could do. Our ability to do good via service, excel at sports and build life-long friendships also helped me carry these virtues into my college sorority days. My college besties are my biggest supporters and most vocal cheerleaders to this day. And, vice versa.
Today, the understanding that ‘you can accomplish anything by seeking out the right group of people to collaborate with’, and the EQ and discipline learned from my dad guide everything I do.
Is there a book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Go In and In” is an amazing book of poetry. The book is a collection of poems broken down into four sections about the gifts of: the practice (yoga and meditation), life, nature and union. The book has become a shared experience with other businesswomen I meet with regularly who draft from it when they need refreshment and balance. The book teaches that regardless of wealth, success, race, gender, ability, everyone seeks reaffirmation and balance in their lives every single day. The book is a set of reflections that help build strength — leadership strength in particular — by tapping into vulnerability and positivity at the same time.
Some of my favorite passages include a line from Enough “It’s enough…to gain nothing but a vision of truth and take the long route home”, something that reminds me that while we all generally race to a solution, it’s not always about speed. Pursuing what you love is wholly dependent on how much you believe in what you’re doing and remaining steadfast through the bumps in the road. While working on Creative Spirit, the non-profit I started in 2017 to find jobs for young adults with intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities, I often find the obstacles overwhelming: companies leaning on the status quo, candidates who are deterred by their inner belief that they are broken, people who are superficial in their support of those with disabilities. I remind myself every day that sometimes it’s okay to take the long route home. In this case, it may take a decade to change the unacceptable truth that 10 million young adults in this country alone are unemployed or underemployed simply by accident of birth, i.e., their disability.
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 mentioned my dad earlier. He was keen to say that “anything great that you will do will not be done alone”. The consummate doer, he was both collaborative with his business partners and strong when he needed to be. He was not afraid to lead, but often took a longer route when collaboration was needed to build consensus.
His wisdom and my experience in sharing experience with like-minded women has shaped my life’s work. The notion that you must bring others along, provided the guidance to make sure that we must bring others along for the ride on important issues. Galvanize them, spend time with them, engage them, share with them, and remember that when others are involved that the power and scale behind what you are doing will get bigger and better, but you must give others an opportunity to have their voices heard too. I am often the author of an idea, but to make that idea work, you must have others think it a good idea too. They will help shape that idea with you and for that reason you must make everyone feel they have a hand in its success.
In my business life, as the Chief Partnerships Officer at Organic at Omnicom, I have to lead multiple companies with a wide variety of competencies to a successful new business end. A successful outcome takes leadership and vision, but it also takes a long view to allow a positive result to come true. When I joined Organic, I brought a long-time career of experience to the table but had never worked with as many experts. Recently, we worked on two big new business pitches: 5 companies, 5 strong minded CEO’s, 31 senior executives, 14 clients, 4 different time zones and, 6 months later, SUCCESS. Not only wasn’t this work done alone, it was the ultimate test of how collaboration must be balanced with leading with a strong hand and vision.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is the ability to set the tone, and unapologetically and thoughtfully set a vision. Great leaders have uncanny “street smarts” (empathy really) that connect that vision to the people who are moving toward any goal. Leaders solicit relevant opinions and participation upfront in order to drive to an end point.
When I started Creative Spirit, I quickly learned that finding employment for those with disabilities would be a way to cure the abject poverty and lack of usefulness experienced by those with IDDs. Before we set our vision, we brought young adults with IDDs into the conversation and talked with employers who could make a difference. The result? Today we are leading the way to 1 million jobs by the end of the decade.
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?
Before a high stakes meeting, I read the material I need to know. Then I go on to read all the adjacent material that relates to the subject at-hand. I call on my yoga and meditation practice and take the time to think through what the audience will be feeling and thinking during the meeting. Envisioning the outcome, I’m looking for is a great starting point, and ending on that point is important. The building blocks of 1-understanding, 2-mind and body prep and 3-feeling the impact it will have on the audience is critical.
Right before the mandate to work from home and the onset of the pandemic, March 5th, we held a gala fundraiser for Creative Spirit — a large gathering of the business community, our talented Creative Spirit constituency and friends and family. It was a spectacular experience and, even with a pandemic looming, it was a wild success. (See video of the evening’s highlights here). My prep included learning every aspect of what the business community understands about hiring those with disabilities — from HR managers to CEO’s, meditation and yoga the morning of, and an afternoon of working with and meeting with our Creative Spirit talent of all abilities.
The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. Can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I love the expression “self-reckoning”. This boiling point has been brewing for so long that it’s almost unbelievable that we could systematically ignore all the wrongdoing. All of us. My heartfelt opinion is that we are so busy, so go-go, that we never take the time to put ourselves in the shoes of others. True empathy is the key to curing what ails us all. I often ask myself, as a marketer and as a human being, do I really understand what it means to be black in life and in business? Do I really understand what it means to have a disability and build a path to a productive life? Do I really understand how it feels to be entirely excluded simply by virtue of where, who and what I was born into? When I was exposed to “the chat” that black Americans must have with their children, or when I first keyed into the abject bullying my daughter with Williams Syndrome experiences, my empathy meter went into overdrive. The question is, how do we give everyone opportunities to walk a mile in the shoes of others? I attended a demo of an AI experience that put male police officers in the shoes of female rape victims. That experience completely changed the protocol and the treatment of rape victims among police departments. Is deep experiential training the answer? Perhaps.
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 always been interested in social justice. At a young age, I served on the board of a family shelter and had my first taste of how empathy, NOT charity, could create profound change. Yes, we raised money to protect women and their children from domestic violence by providing shelter and a bridge to a better life. But it was the counseling and the positive reinforcement that their lives mattered that made for success. A message of empowerment and optimism made our work successful. It became clear to me at an early age that big thinking, empathy and a growth mindset are the keys to great outcomes.
That experience proved that female empowerment could be a powerful accelerator In my advertising career. While many of my peers and superiors were cynical of a holding-company-wide effort, I worked with Pam Maphis Larrick, CEO, FCB at the time, and my most cherished advertising colleagues to start the Women’s Leadership Network at Interpublic and joined the board. Our efforts were meant to thwart a harsh reality: 75% of women at the bottom of the organization and less than 10% at the top. It elucidated the fact that while women were entering the advertising industry in big numbers, by mid-career, they were almost all gone. We slowly began to turn that focus to a retention program for women of all races, ages, sexual orientations, and abilities at the mid-level who were at risk of dropping out or failing out because of a lack of training. It was easy to see how a unified effort, with the right funding, could be a successful differentiator and an effective pathway to a diverse and inclusive environment at scale. Today that effort is global at IPG and the company is listed on Bloomberg’s Gender Equality Index and has gone on to support the LGBTQ+ community and a 100 percent rating on the Corporate Equality Index a prestigious global annual survey published by the HRC.
Those skills and that learning became the centerpiece of an industry-wide effort at The Advertising Club of New York where I serve on the board of directors. There, I helped initiate The Women’s Masterclass and Fellowship Program — a model program that engages mid-career women of color in a year-long intensive professional journey where we invest in mentorship, fellowship and training. The success of the program is outstanding, with 100% retention of participants and their promotion to leadership roles or entrepreneurship. In its sixth year, the program is proof that directly investing in women produces unprecedented return-on-investment. Afterall, the best COVID results around the world have been gained by women political leaders (Forbes: Science Behind Women Leaders Success Fighting COVID).
It’s clear that investing in underserved cohorts is something that has always been on my personal agenda. The most important and powerful diversity initiative I’ve undertaken is starting Creative Spirit. Creative Spirit finds jobs for individuals with intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities, as I mentioned earlier. Our goal is to match ambitious and talented individuals with fair wage integrated employment at the best companies in the world. Creative Spirit is the only global 501c3 nonprofit corporation to deeply focus on employment for the 10 million young adults whose prospects of employment are the worst in the world. I have a daughter with a rare disease who has been the subject of bullying most of her life and whose abilities have been overlooked at every turn. My personal attachment to this topic, along with my profound desire to bring a population of people into the conversation that promise to make us all better, has made this the most important — albeit the most challenging — initiative I’ve ever worked on. To say this is broken would be an understatement.
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 is a clear and powerful future in having diversity represented in an executive team. Homogeneity is the equivalent of saying “I can predict the outcome of any situation”, “I can write the script before the story is finished”, or “I can tell you what you’re going to say before you say it”. Why bother to show up? I’m bored already. Conversely, joining a leadership team with the promise of being able to build on each other’s experiences, values and journeys, already sounds like a more interesting proposition. Engagement, not status, makes executive teams work well. The return on investment for taking the time to build a diverse team will always be improved ideas, revenue and profit that you never knew you had access to.
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.
- Develop an insatiable appetite for the rich, colorful experiences of others. Those stories and experiences can become the foundation of a decision, relationship or disruptive thought you have in the future.
I was working on a campaign recently that included the experience of African American small business owners and a black colleague suggested that we change the director and editor on our project so that we were not telling the story through the eyes of a white team. The notion that a story that was rich in culture could only be told through an empathetic lens speaks for itself. The idea of giving the power to edit a story to an inauthentic author is a repugnant thought.
- Do good, rinse, repeat. Your learning experience around diversity, equity and inclusion is a lifelong journey. It isn’t a program, project or committee.
If I hadn’t worked at Wellspring House and learned that empowerment and positive intent produced results, I wouldn’t have been able to extrapolate that information to inject what works into IPG’s Women’s Leadership Network programming. Insight into the 10x more difficult plight of women of color at IPG produced the powerful work that became The Advertising Club’s Women’s Fellowship program, and on and on. Your work is never done, and if you stop, the universe loses the multiplier effect of the great work you are doing. Jump in. Don’t stop.
- Be brave. Be the champion.
Today, it’s easy to jump on the DE&I bandwagon for political reasons. But, don’t frown on that. Jump on the bandwagon even if you’re not inclined to invent some new ideas of your own. DE&I needs all the champions it can get. Whether you are being the champion or a willing participant, engage. Engagement is the key to success among any group.
I’ve been working to build a spectacular board of directors for Creative Spirit. Disability inclusion is largely unexplored and unless you can relate directly, the topic is a little bit obtuse. Our board members who are engaged in the topic make bold brave recommendations even when they don’t know the subject matter. They are embraced and produce lively and productive board meetings that always take us someplace we no one’s ever been before.
- Facts are your friend. Quotas work.
I am often engaged in discussions about how to get more representation to the table. In case you haven’t gleaned this from this article already, numbers, facts, and setting goals works. Many more people lean into our conversation about inclusion of people with IDD’s in the workforce when we talk about the unprecedented 85% unemployment figure. Companies begin to perk up when we tell them that there are 10 million young adults with another 1 million coming by 2021 without jobs and that Creative Spirit is on a mission to employ and retain 1 million people in this decade.
- Empathy works. Empathy training. Did I say empathy?
When something is happening to a friend or family member it takes on all new meaning. Empathy and empathy training are something that we should be baked into professional development in businesses and in schools. Empathy turns an observation into an experience, empathy allows us to temporarily live in another person’s perceptual world without making judgments. Having the ability to sense meaning in a situation before acting is central to moving forward. When we built an executive team that was truly diverse, we began to eliminate hours of unwinding perceptions of the dozens of situations that happen in the workplace every day. Assuming positive intent, fostering empathy and diverse cultures reduce bullying, prejudice and increases the will of individuals to help others.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
If this period of quarantining with those you love or have chosen, civil unrest, and isolation has not shaken this country I’m not sure what can. It is clearly a time for reflection and action. I am optimistic that we have been given this time of respite to rejuvenate and re-examine our values. The intense experience of looking my business colleagues directly in the eye every single day on zoom makes everyone more accountable. That’s powerful stuff.
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?
Without a doubt the person I’d love to have a private conversation with is Melinda Gates. She has been steadfast in her support of women and highly successful at effecting change around large-scale social justice issues on a global basis. In her book, she talks about one of her mentors and his profound experience with people with intellectual disabilities. Her quote, “Many of us don’t know what it feels like to be wholly excluded. The greatest source of suffering is not a disability but the accompanying feelings of being useless, un-appreciated and unloved. It’s easier to accept the disability than to accept the inability to be of special value to another person.” My personal goal is to engage her in our efforts to change the trajectory of the lives for people with intellectual, developmental and learning disabilities — the largest and most impoverished population everywhere in the world.
How can our readers follow you online?
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/laurelrossi/
- Twitter: @laurel_rossi
- Insta: https://www.instagram.com/laurelrossi/ (laurelrossi)
- FB: https://www.facebook.com/laurel.rossi
More importantly please follow Creative Spirit at:
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/creative-spirit-us/
- Twitter: @hiredifferent
- Insta: https://www.instagram.com/creativespirit.us/
- FB: https://www.facebook.com/creativespirit.us
- YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCeDqYDzR9vU6OeIhq3fVUIA (Creative Spirit US)